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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

2 Teens Who Set Fire May Not Have to Pay Full Tab

Damages: Authorities concede that they may only be able to recoup part of the $6 million it cost to fight the blaze and compensate property owners.

May 31, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Ojai teenagers who pleaded guilty last week to starting a 4,300-acre brush fire in December will probably pay no more than a fraction of the $6 million that it cost to fight the blaze and to compensate property owners, officials said Tuesday.

County fire authorities said they will decide in coming weeks how much they will seek from Brett Schwermer and Jonathan Barrett, both 18.

But the final figure will probably be a compromise based on the actual cost to extinguish the blaze and what officials believe that the teenage offenders can realistically pay.

"Our purpose here is not to bankrupt anyone," said David LeMay, deputy chief for law enforcement of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "But the people of the state of California expect us to recoup the cost of fighting a fire started by someone's negligence. We have to weigh those issues against the amount of money a single person can be expected to pay."

Authorities from the Ventura County Fire Department, California Department of Forestry and U. S. Forest Service will meet to determine how much compensation to demand for fighting the Dec. 21 blaze, started after Schwermer and Barrett set off illegal fireworks along Koenigstein Road in Upper Ojai.

Nearly 1,600 firefighters from throughout California worked through Christmas to extinguish the blaze, at a cost of more than $5 million.

To ensure payment, authorities will probably file a civil suit against Schwermer and Barrett, who is the son of the Ojai chief of police.

Authorities are quick to point out that Barrett's connection to law enforcement will not influence their decision. "It's not a matter of if" the county will seek reimbursement, LeMay said. "It's more a question of how much."

That cost is separate from a bill that the teens will be handed from county prosecutors to cover losses suffered by residents with property in the fire's path. Flames consumed one home and severely damaged others along with several of the area's profitable avocado groves.

The county's Probation Department is calculating personal property losses in preparation for a June 29 sentencing hearing in the criminal case. Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Peace said she expects the tab to be a hefty one.

"I would imagine it would be at least a million dollars," Peace said. "I feel safe saying that."

A judge, however, could also determine that Schwermer, who graduated from Nordhoff High School last year, and Barrett, who is set to graduate from Nordhoff this year, are unable to cover the multimillion-dollar expense and could order them to pay a lesser amount.

Under a plea agreement the teens reached with prosecutors last week, they could also face up to a year in County Jail.

Attorney Jim Farley, who represents Barrett, said both men are aware of their financial obligations and are willing to make reasonable payments. But he added that it's absurd for county officials to go after an amount of money that Barrett, who works part-time for a horse boarding facility owned by his mother, will probably never have.

"The chances of substantial payment as far as I'm concerned are very remote," Farley said.

LeMay said fire officials understand the dilemma. So there is a good chance that they will ask for a reduced amount, one that Schwermer and Barrett could pay back in their lifetimes.

Authorities stress that any decision regarding a reduced repayment has nothing to do with the fact that one of the defendants is the son of Sheriff's Capt. John Barrett, who serves as the top law enforcement official in Ojai.

Other cases have also warranted reduced repayments, authorities said. LeMay pointed to a 1991 case of a man who accidentally started a fire on church property in the Placer County foothills. The man was a caretaker for the church, working for room and board, and receiving a small stipend for food. The cost to the county to put out the blaze was $750,000.

"And it was going to cost us another few thousand dollars to get through the court system," LeMay said. "Based on the availability of dollars from the individual and the organization he worked for, we basically decided not to pursue any action. It would have cost us more to pursue the case than anything we would have ever gotten."

Still, Sandi Wells, spokeswoman for the Ventura County Fire Department, said her agency hasn't made any decisions yet and may still demand full payment. In past cases, Wells said, the department has always asked for every dollar spent to fight a fire.

"This case is definitely not settled for us," she said. "But our normal procedure is to go for full cost recovery for anyone proven in court to have negligently started a fire. We believe everyone should be responsible for what they've done."

Wells pointed to a case that the county settled last year involving two teenagers who sparked a 400-acre brush fire while playing with fireworks between Ventura and Santa Paula in 1996. The department sought the entire tab for fighting the fire, $235,000, but eventually settled the case for $115,000.

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