SIMI VALLEY, Calif.--Big Sky Movie Ranch in Simi Valley, Calif., is more than 50 years of film and television history. It's where TV's Laura Ingalls Wilder had her first kiss. It's where countless movie cowboys have fought, loved, rounded up the ranch's patient and photogenic cattle, and ridden across the spectacular oak-studded hills. It's doubled for Australia in The Thorn Birds and for Africa in Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. This past week, it was to have hosted 300 cast, crew, and extras for Martin Scorsese's Aviator, and sixteen people for a Cal State, Northridge student film.

Perhaps as early as next spring, filming and cattle ranching can begin here again, but for now, the 6,800-acre ranch is almost completely charred. All but one large meadow and a couple of sets have burned, and 20 head of cattle and five head of sheep are missing and feared lost. Sadly, the beloved sets from Little House on the Prairie were among those destroyed.

News of the demolished movie sets from Little House on the Prairie, Gunsmoke, and Father Murphy was disturbing to many fans. It was also upsetting to many local residents, who have fond memories of visiting the ranch. Until the Northridge earthquake, the ranch was open to the public for one weekend a year for docent-led tours of the sets, historical re-enactments, rides on the Wells Fargo stagecoach, and to raise funds for local charities.

"Just about every family I know has pictures of their children at that event," said Michelle LaPointe, a Simi resident. "To me, Big Sky Movie Ranch is Simi Valley," added Brad Stanaway. " For myself, and my friends, it's part of my fondest memories as a child, and as an adult."

The fire came at a critical time for the ranch. The property managers, fans of movie and television history and many Simi Valley citizens have been trying to protect the property from development. Several conservancies have expressed an interest in purchasing the land, and one movie studio would like to acquire the property as a permanent back lot. The studio's effort is complicated by a 1998 Ventura County zoning change that forbids standing sets or sound stages on land zoned for open space. Even though the 1998 change was made administratively, the county now says that changing the rules back would require a public vote. And yet, "filming brings revenue to a lot of local businesses, from restaurants to hardware stores," said Janet Waitkus, Film Liaison for the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Don and Debra Early have managed the property for 28 years, guiding productions from big-budget movies to car commercials. They live on the property and raised their children there. The Simi Valley fire swept through the ranch three times in less than 24 hours over the weekend of Oct. 25 and 26. The first wave, at 4 p.m. Oct. 25, damaged the just-constructed set for "Aviator". The second, coming at 3 a.m. as the Earlys desperately tried to move their horses, sheep and cattle to previously-burned areas, "looked like a tidal wave of flames coming over the mountain," Debra Early said. The third wave, early in the afternoon on Oct. 26, is when the 500-acre pasture known as "the movie set" was changed forever.

A movie-industry veteran whose Pacific West Management handles film location properties throughout the state, Ms. Early said that as devastating as the fire was, much of what roared through the ranch was a "cool" fire that will be good for the land in the long run. "You can see that there's still plant life just under the surface," she said as she kicked gently beneath the ash. "If the first rains are gentle, the seeds will take root in the enriched soil. By next spring, this ranch will be more beautiful than ever." The fire moved through so fast that while most of the pastures burned, many of the centuries-old oak trees survived.

Desperate need for tools

The Earlys are determined to start again, but they face daunting challenges. The property itself is owned by a Beverly Hills partnership, but the cattle ranching operation belongs to Debra and Don Early. And although approximately 75 percent of their animals survived, they've lost several barns full of hay, a tack room, their tool shed, paddocks and corrals. It's not the loss of the structures that's so devastating, it's what was in them: saddles, bridles, feed, animal medicines, and most painful of all, the tools that the family needs to keep working.

Don Early's son, Richard, lived in a historic house on the property called the Cookhouse. He and his girlfriend escaped with their dog just minutes before the home and their vehicles were engulfed--Richard didn't even have his shoes. He also lost the tools he uses for his fencing business. "A lot of people had fences damaged or destroyed in the fire," said Debra. "Our son could be working right now if he just had a few tools."

Anyone who can donate tools should send them to Pacific West Management, 4927 Bennett Road, Santa Susana, CA 93063. Debra Early can be reached at 805-522-3511. Pacific West Management's website is www.filmca.net.

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