Five felony counts against the two men who sparked the Zaca Fire and the ranch they were working for have been dropped, according to the prosecutor in the case.
Following a preliminary hearing-conducted in cases to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial-that lasted a few hours Thursday, Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Zel Canter dismissed the felony counts against Rancho La Laguna LLC and ranch workers Jose Jesus Cabrera, 39, of Santa Ynez, and Santiago Iniguez Cervantes, 47, of Santa Maria, indicating the workers’ actions didn’t amount to recklessness. All the felony accounts alleged recklessness.
The three defendants still face a misdemeanor that could result in 180 days behind bars, and an infraction that could cost them $1,150 maximum. The infraction is for allegedly not having a hot work permit and the misdemeanor is for alleged carelessness with a flaming substance.
While recklessness is defined as a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would do, the judge indicated that Cabrera and Cervantes brought a bucket of water and a shovel to offset the possibility of sparks flying into nearby dry weeds. The defendants had been charged with five felony counts of “recklessly causing a fire”-one count each for four of the many workers injured fighting the blaze, plus one for the burned forest.
Cabrera and Cervantes had been working on a broken pipe leading to a water trough on July 4, when the fire began. Originally, while Cabrera was using a grinder on the metal pipe, Cervantes was using a shovel to keep sparks from flying. But when the embers started to get in Cabrera’s eyes, Cervantes took the shovel away, and the flying sparks eventually caused a fire in the weeds. “He was simply running sparks on dry weeds in the middle of summer,” prosecutor Jerry Lulejian said. “What else do you need to know that they were being reckless?”
Normally, he argued at the hearing, workers would water down an area prior to working with sparks nearby, but they didn’t do it that day because they wanted to get home for the Independence Day holiday.
Robert Sanger, attorney for Cabrera, didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment, but had told The Independent last year that the two had cleared vegetation within 10 feet of their work area, “but the sparks flew further than expected.” They apparently tried extinguishing the fire with water, but because of their remoteness weren’t able to call emergency personnel. When they finally made phone contact, a Fire Department helicopter had already spotted the fire.
Two investigators from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department testified during the preliminary hearing, according to Lulejian.
The fire burned more than 240,000 acres-the second largest fire in California history- and took just under three months to contain. Firefighters kept the fire away from nearly all structures and private properties, but it burned through vast areas of the Los Padres National Forest. It was the largest fire in county history.
No one died in the fire, but the blaze cost more than $115 million to fight, and several firefighters were injured fighting the fire.
The matter will be back in Santa Maria court October 23.