Action was taken in Department 8 of the Santa Barbara Courthouse this morning when lawyers for Craig Ilenstine, 50, and Dana Larsen, 45, announced that their clients plead “not guilty” to misdemeanor charges related to the start of the Jesusita Fire on May 5, 2009. The men were allegedly using gas-powered weed cutters to trim vegetation along the Jesusita Trail last May in the hours leading up to the start of the fire. The Jesusita Fire burned almost 9,000 acres of the Santa Barbara front country, destroying or damaging almost 100 homes and injuring many firefighters. A court date was set this morning for Friday, March 5 to determine if and when a trial date will be set. The accused men were represented by their lawyers, Larry Powell and Sam Eaton, and were not present in court. Because the charges are misdemeanors and not felonies, the men are not required to be present unless the judge directly orders them to be.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian, who is prosecuting the case, wouldn’t comment on facts or related details because “it is an open case,” but elaborated on the two charges that the men are up against. The first is a violation of a California Fire Code which requires that a permit must be obtained from the fire marshal for “any welding, cutting, open torches, and other hot work operations and equipment.” This section of the code, Chapter 26, Section 2601, is also known as a “hot work permit” and is not a commonly followed or widely known about law. The second misdemeanor charge is an alleged violation of California Public Resources Code 4431 which states that if hot equipment or portable tools are being used in or near any forest-covered land, the person must be carrying appropriate firefighting equipment such as a fire extinguisher or a serviceable, round-point shovel.
After the arraignment, Lulejian told reporters that he believes there is a “disconnect between knowledge and prohibitions of the law and what people actually do.” Eaton confirmed that the accused men will not be present in court on March 5 unless the judge specifically asks them to be, which is unlikely. He also revealed that there will be a legal motion before the trial begins in order to ask preliminary legal questions such as if the statutes apply to the specific situation and if restitution is appropriate and realistic. This legal motion is being made in order to save time and energy on the case. Whether or not the case will lead to a jury trial is still unknown.