[b]BLAZE MENACES NEVERLAND[/b] DAWN HOBBS, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER August 26, 2006 6:53 AM Black smoke billowed from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch on Friday afternoon as a blaze charred more than 40 acres of the sprawling Los Olivos estate. The fire, which was fueled by light brush and grass, came within 200 yards of buildings, but more than 100 firefighters from Santa Barbara County Fire Department, Vandenberg Air Force Base and the U.S. Forest Service managed to keep it at bay. It’s not known how many animals were in the ranch zoo, which in the past has been home to a menagerie including elephants, giraffes, llamas and a camel, but authorities confirmed that none was evacuated. “The animals are being taken care of and there are no problems with them,” said county Fire Department Capt. Keith Cullom. By 7:30 p.m., the fire was fully contained. Investigators remained on scene until nightfall, attempting to determine what sparked the blaze that had firefighters hiking in over steep hills to stop it from spreading farther across the 2,600-acre ranch. Mr. Jackson has not lived at Neverland since shortly after his acquittal on child molestation charges in June 2005 and has instead been residing in Bahrain. Raymone Bain, Mr. Jackson’s publicist, could not be reached for comment Friday evening. The fire, which was reported at about 2:25 p.m., broke out just west of the entertainer’s amusement park. A road that runs through the middle of the property split the fire into two flanks that burned on both sides of the 16 carnival rides, including a merry-go-round, Ferris wheel and octopus. From there, the blaze climbed up the steep terrain of the Neverland valley, where cattle had been grazing, but the herd safely escaped the flames. The employees working on the ranch Friday were not evacuated, authorities said. Helicopters dipped their buckets into Mr. Jackson’s pond, home to swans and pink flamingos, to scoop up water used to douse the flames from above, while hand crews and bulldozers battled the blaze from the ground. A private fire crew stationed at Neverland Valley Ranch attempted to keep the fire under control until the closest county fire crews could arrive. It took the crews about 15 minutes to reach the ranch on Figueroa Mountain Road about five miles north of Highway 154. Mr. Jackson hired the Neverland crew after a fire there in 1989, which destroyed a $300,000 barn where two giraffes lived. The giraffes and chimpanzees in an adjacent barn were safely evacuated. That fire, county investigators determined, started in a large, propane-fueled fan installed two weeks earlier as part of the heating system. Mr. Jackson bought the ranch in 1988 for $14.6 million and created a fairy tale-like setting, complete with a train, movie theater and arcade, to offer fun times to disadvantaged and sick children year-round. It costs about $3 million per year to maintain. A former ranch employee said there is an extensive fire hydrant system in all areas of the property and that each building is equipped with sprinklers. Violet Silva, who worked as head of security and fire for the last seven years of her 15-year employment there, said ranch staff regularly took county firefighters around the property to familiarize them with the layout in case of such an event. “Our purpose was to be preventative,” Ms. Silva said. “Neverland is in itself very well thought out, with the hydrants and sprinklers.” Ranch employees received regular fire training when she worked there. Also, a preplan book had been given to county Fire Station 32, mapping out the ranch. “I’m confident the situation will be handled efficiently and correctly because of all of this preparation,” Ms. Silva said. source: [url=http://www.newspress.com/Top/Article/article.jsp?Section=LOCAL&ID=564794071449731124]Santa Barbara News Press[/url]

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