Two ranch workers are being criminally prosecuted for starting the Zaca Fire while trying to fix a pipe leading to a watering trough. Jose Jesus Cabrera, 38, of Santa Ynez, and Santiago Iniguez Cervantes, 46, of Santa Maria were charged on August 31 with four felony counts of “recklessly causing a fire”-one count each for three of the many workers injured fighting the blaze, plus one for the burned forest. Additionally, the defendants are being charged for carelessness with a flaming substance-a misdemeanor-and for failing to secure the annually renewable hot work permit for such repairs-an infraction. The penalty could range from fines and probation to nine years in prison, said Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian, who is prosecuting the case.
The largest fire in Santa Barbara County history started when sparks from a metal grinder being used to cut the pipe fell onto dry vegetation on the morning of July 4. According to Robert Sanger, who is representing Cabrera, the workers cleared the vegetation within 10 feet of where they were working, “but the sparks flew further than expected.” The men’s attempts to douse the fire using water from the trough proved futile, and their cell phones did not work at that location. By the time they were able to make phone contact, a fire department helicopter had already spotted the fire.
Rancho La Laguna, a limited liability company (LLC) listed in the county assessor’s records as the landowner, is being charged on the same counts as the workers. Rancho La Laguna’s holdings just north of Los Olivos consist of five parcels totaling more than 10,000 acres. Documents from the California Secretary of State’s office list the contact for Rancho La Laguna, LLC, as Ken Sorenson, a certified public accountant with an office in Solvang. (In 2006, Sorenson was permanently barred from using a certain tax strategy when preparing federal income tax returns. The U.S. Department of Justice characterized the strategy as tax fraud based on bogus deductions, but the matter was settled with Sorenson admitting no wrongdoing, as he had already stopped employing the strategy in 2005.)
According to documents on file with the California Secretary of State, the LLC was formed in 2002 and lists an address of 7003 Foxen Canyon Road. Its members are Charles Roven, a movie producer whose credits include Batman Begins, and his wife, Stephanie Haymes-Roven. The LLC owners cannot be fined as individuals and are liable only insofar as they are invested in the property.
Lulejian explained that under California law, an LLC “is a legal person.” Though it cannot be jailed, the LLC can be fined, and liens placed on its property. Based on real estate values in the Santa Ynez Valley, realtor Tom Matheson estimated that Rancho La Laguna’s property would be valued between $15 million and $100 million, depending on water supply and other factors.
The Zaca Fire eventually burned 375 square miles, most of it in the Los Padres National Forest, and cost $118 million before it was pronounced fully contained on September 2. The U.S. Forest Service’s final injury tally was 38. One of the three victims named in the D.A.’s complaint is Antonio Hurtado, a MarBorg truck driver who suffered two broken legs when his tanker went over the side of Figueroa Mountain Road. The others-Rick Pizzorno and Chris Bocim, pilots of a helicopter that crashed during liftoff from a Figueroa Mountain helipad-sustained injuries described as minor in news reports, though Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokeperson Eli Iskow noted that one suffered a compound fracture of the thumb. “That is not a minor injury,” Iskow added. In late August, Josh Lee, a member of a crew from Kern County, broke several bones in a 40-foot fall into Forester’s Leap Canyon, Iskow said. Lee is not named in the complaint, which may be amended before the arraignment, which is scheduled for September 20 in Santa Maria Superior Court.
At Sedgwick Ranch, the UCSB reserve near Rancho La Laguna, director Kate McCurdy said that contractors in the area are refusing to take jobs that might produce sparks. “Our front gate just fell off the hinge,” said McCurdy, “but we’re going to wait ’til the fire season ends before we fix it,” she said. “We even have a fire truck we could put on the site, but I don’t want a fire named after me.”