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2 charged in huge Santa Barbara wildfire

The men failed to get a required permit and sparked the May blaze using gas-powered weed cutters to clear a trail, a prosecutor says.

December 11, 2009|By Catherine Saillant

Santa Barbara County officials charged two men Thursday with misdemeanors for allegedly sparking the destructive Jesusita fire in May by clearing a trail with gas-powered weed cutters.

Craig Ilenstine, 50, and Dana Neil Larsen, 45, failed to obtain a so-called hot-work permit as required by county code before undertaking clearance on the Jesusita trail near Cathedral Peak, said Jerry Lulejian, a Santa Barbara County deputy district attorney.

The fire erupted May 5 after the men used gas-fueled trimmers to clear brush and limbs from the trail, Lulejian said. The unpaved path, high above Santa Barbara, is popular with hikers and mountain bikers.

High winds stoked the flames into a roaring wildfire that destroyed 80 homes and one commercial building and damaged dozens of other properties. At the height of the blaze nearly two-thirds of Santa Barbara residents were evacuated.

Attorneys for the two men declined to comment.

Lulejian said that if the county obtains a conviction, the district attorney's office will try to recover property damages on behalf of victims. The prosecutor declined to provide details about why the men were clearing the public trail.

Ilenstine and Larsen didn't get a permit for their work in an area of high fire risk and didn't stay at least 30 minutes after they finished to watch for smoldering brush, he said. "It's just not OK to go into the forest and do whatever you want," the prosecutor said.

It's not the first time the district attorney's office has prosecuted workers alleged to have negligently started a fire. The office brought felony charges against two ranch workers who inadvertently started the massive Zaca fire in 2007 while repairing equipment. A judge threw out the felony counts, and the D.A.'s office later dismissed remaining misdemeanor charges against one of the men and the ranch.

Lulejian said that result played into the district attorney's decision to file misdemeanor charges in this case.

A spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said investigators are still looking into whether the state will try to recover its portion of the $17-million cost of fighting the fire. It will do so, said spokesman Daniel Berlant, if investigators can show that Ilenstine and Larsen were negligent or acted illegally.

The men each face a $25,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail if convicted.

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