The attorney representing Jesusita Fire victims says this photo proves STIHL equipment is capable of creating sparks and fires

The attorney representing Jesusita Fire victims says this photo proves STIHL equipment is capable of creating sparks and fires

Jesusita Fire Litigation Heats Up

Lawsuits Filed Against Trail Workers and Tool Manufacturer

Monday, August 22, 2011
Article Tools
Print friendly
E-mail story
Tip Us Off
iPod friendly
Share Article

More than two years after the Jesusita Fire wreaked destruction in the hills of Santa Barbara, a group of homeowners and the California Department of Forestry have filed two separate lawsuits seeking reimbursement for property damage and suppression costs caused by the fire.

The Jesusita Fire — which investigators say was accidentally started on the morning of May 5, 2009, by two volunteer trail workers who were using a weed trimming tool to clear brush on the Jesusita Trail — burned over 8,700 acres above San Roque Road and Ontare Road before being contained in a firefighting effort that cost the county $17 million. In the two weeks that the fired burned, 85 homes were destroyed and 15 homes were damaged.

On behalf of 70 individuals whose homes were affected by the fire, Los Angeles-based attorney Brian Heffernan filed a lawsuit last month against Stihl tool company — which manufactured the FS 110 brush cutter that allegedly sparked the fire — seeking “fair” reimbursement of damage caused to his clients’ real estate and property.

According to Heffernan, the company did not warn users that a three-point metal blade attachment on the tool — which investigators say struck a rock and sparked the Jesusita Fire — posed a “hidden danger.”

“If you do exactly what this company tells you to do … you can cause a fire,” Heffernan said. “That’s what happened in Santa Barbara.”

Although no monetary figure for damages has been set, Heffernan said he expects to go forward with a trial. Stihl — which is approaching the end of a 30-day period to settle the litigation out of court — issued this statement to The Independent: “STIHL Inc. is reviewing the complaint recently filed in Santa Barbara, Calif. regarding a 2009 wildfire and at this time has no comment.”

Meanwhile, the two trail workers who wielded the Stihl tool — Dana Larsen and Craig Ilenstine — are facing litigation of their own. The California Department of Forestry filed a civil complaint against the two men in May seeking more than $35 million in damages accrued in fighting and investigating the fire. According to the complaint, Larsen and Ilenstine “breached their duties through their acts, omissions, and/or carelessness in failing to avoid the possibility of fire, to take fire-preventative measures, or to extinguish a fire.”

In the complaint filed against Stihl by the homeowners, Heffernan defended Larsen and Ilenstine, arguing that they were not responsible for the damage that their brush cutter may have caused.

Larsen and Ilenstine “had/have tremendous respect for the Jesusita and Santa Barbara environment,” Heffernan wrote. “They had taken fire prevention precautions while clearing brush and had gone out of their way to avoid setting the brushcutters anywhere near combustible sources such as grass or brush.”

Attorney Mack Staton — who is defending Ilenstine — went even further, saying that the two men may not have even caused the blaze.

Larsen and Ilenstine “aren’t the two guys who did it,” Staton said. “They simply were honest enough to call in and say they were clearing up there.” At the time, Larsen and Ilenstine told investigators that they left the trail area around 11:30 a.m., nearly two hours before the blaze broke out and spread in the afternoon winds.

The Department of Forestry’s case will come to court for the first time in a conference on September 6.

Last year, Larsen and Ilenstine were sentenced to 250 hours of community service after pleading no contest to a charge of trimming without proper fire suppression equipment. They dodged a more serious criminal charge of failing to obtain a “hot work” permit when the court ruled that the requirement for a power-tool permit did not apply to brush clearing.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Oh for crying out loud! The workers need to be told that metal on stone can cause sparks? Get real. Sue the workers, maybe, but the tool manufacturer? Reminds me of a lawsuit by people who used a rotary lawnmower as a hedge trimmer, were injured, then sued the lawnmower maker for not labelling the lawnmore as not intended for hedge trimming (those guys won a Darwin award)! Heck, it wasn't intended for brain surgery either, and it wasn't labelled for that!

JohnLocke (anonymous profile)
August 22, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Our society is just too lawsuit-happy. Yuk.

The edges of our communities that border the dry wild areas are simply very, very dangerous. Fire danger comes with the territory.

The lion's portion of the responsibility rests with those who choose to live in the dangerous fire zone.

Good people lost a lot in the various fires between 2007 and 2010. I don't want to bash them. But to search for the speck in the eye of these brush clearing guys and the tool manufacturer while ignoring the plank in the eyes of the residents of a very dangerous location seems wrong to me.

sevendolphins (anonymous profile)
August 22, 2011 at 12:22 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Unbelievable! Sue the company that made the tool! Really? I think we need to start labeling people, with a stupid sticker on their forehead! So I am not supposed to carve a turkey with my cain saw, I was just wondering because it says nothing in the manual and there is no label on the thing...

miked442 (anonymous profile)
August 22, 2011 at 1:35 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The problem with all the 5 fires is people that come from the Cities and exercise NO common sense what so ever.

We own land in SLO County, each season after the rains the weeds must be mowed, by tractor, and some weed wacker hand work. The rule of thumb is STOP by 10:00 AM. The nighttime moistness is gone by 10:00 AM. Also we do not use steel blades on the weed wackers.

A very good read.

I understand these clowns were on the trail with weed wackers using steel cutting blades with NO 5 gallon hand pump fire suppression backpacks and by their own admission after 10:00AM.

To file suit against Stihl because their manual does not have City Sissy warnings about steel rotating at rpm against rock is ludicrous.

The Tea (Pee) fire was another one, we urinated on the fire, uh try about 10 gallons of water or more until you can put your bare hand in the ash.

The Zaca Fire, more clowns using a grinder on pipe in dry grass with no spark shield, I guess the grinder manual didn't have a page on that, again no fire suppression equipment.

Each of the 5 Fires involve Dumb and Dumber.

The tool manufacture cannot be responsible for misuse of their products. I guess automobile manufactures need to have a statement in the operators manual, " Don't Operate While Drunk"

It was only by the grace of God that the wind abated and the West End of Santa Barbara did not burn to the Sea. How many more near misses do we get?

Sorry people in the Wildlands but you lost my respect, this suit against Stihl, their products are some of the best in the industry.

Your Attorney needs to be tarred and feathered and sent back East, where no doubt he came from. Shakespeare was right on that one.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
August 22, 2011 at 5:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

@ howgreen..." Great post, except that there are plenty of ambulance-chasing and opportunistic attorneys right here in California. No need to look East.

JohnLocke (anonymous profile)
August 23, 2011 at 9:01 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Howgreenwasmyvalley Has nailed it, all I can do is agree with him

dadof3 (anonymous profile)
August 23, 2011 at 9:02 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Why not sue the workers or those that hired them? Oh, I forgot, this is about the money, not about the principle. Let's go after the deepest pockets we can no matter who's at fault.

jfklbj (anonymous profile)
August 23, 2011 at 2:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I believe everyone realizes this is absurd. We can only hope this goes to trial so a jury can call Brian Heffernan an idiot in court and laugh at the time and money he spent on this case.

DanVac (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2011 at 12:59 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Idiot Homeowners for building there in the first place.

If you build in a fire area you should not be allowed to sue anyone if your house burns down!

rstein9 (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2011 at 6:01 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Dan Vac is right stupid people build in stupid places and usually are the ones that build in areas that should never be built in like mudslide areas, because they love the view and have the big dollars. They should not be allowed to sue.

Next if they were gone two hours before the flames started, how are they so sure they started the fire. In dry grasses it starts fast unlike lighting struck trees, so either they left during the fire which means leaving later than it says in the article or they were not the ones who started it. The suit should just be dropped and I can almost bet these suits are pressure from the individuals insurance companies to make up for lost dollars they had to pay on their policies.

bndr (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2011 at 9:49 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Regarding the weed trimmer, "make it idiot proof and they will make a better idiot"

e_male (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2011 at 10:23 a.m. (Suggest removal)

By this logic, the SB DA should file suit against the car Peter Lance was driving while DUI. It wasn't his fault either.

Now, let's see how many trails the two gents will have to clear to come up with the $35-million . . . divided by two, times 40-hours, time 52 weeks, carry the six . . . ah, voila!

Should have it paid off by February 16, 2426!

Draxor (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2011 at 12:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Don't laugh Draxor. Do you remember the jockey Willie Shoemaker? He was drunk and rolled his car in a solo accident that left him paralyzed. He sued Ford and they settled for $1M.

jfklbj (anonymous profile)
August 25, 2011 at 12:42 p.m. (Suggest removal)

You guys are right, i got burned bad in that fire. I don't blame anyone. I live here and i know the risk. this time i got burned. I move on. What a bunch of loosers going after Stihl.

Riceman (anonymous profile)
August 28, 2011 at 4:34 p.m. (Suggest removal)

You guys make me laugh. "The lion's portion of the responsibility rests with those who choose to live in the dangerous fire zone." Are you serious?

Admittedly, I might feel less sympathy for those living in a "dangerous fire zone" (arguably, all of Santa Barbara is a dangerous fire zone) if the fire were to have occurred via natural causes (e.g. lightning strike). But when two guys decide on a hot spring day to take power tools to clear combustible brush in hills covered with it, the "lion's share" of the responsibility lies with people who chose to make their homes there? Sounds pretty stupid when you put it all together, doesn't it.

How does this sound: a woman decides to go for a walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood after dark and is attacked and raped. By your logic, she should be the responsible for her because she made the poor decision to go out for a walk (or build a house on a hillside. your pick.) So do we place blame on the victim who may have been foolish, or the person who perpetrates the actual crime.

It's really easy to point the finger when the hole in the ground isn't yours.

sbdude (anonymous profile)
August 29, 2011 at 12:55 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Someone is trying to hand me a subpoena because of a youtube video I uploaded that shows the Jesusita Fire from State and Alamar about 20-30 minutes in. (I have since marked the video private, so don't bother looking for it) Couldn't they have just made a phone call to me and asked about the validity of the video and whether or not I'd be interested in allowing them to use it as evidence? Judging from this article it sounds like the attorneys for Stihl are still at it, as I recall in the description of said video I included the time of day and my estimation of when the fire started. What these amateurs don't realize or don't want to admit is that I was making an ESTIMATE. I'm not a professional news-gatherer. So please Stihl, leave me alone. Thank you kindly. And remember, illegal subpoenas or subpoenas that infringe on basic civil rights and within the paradigm of the Freedom of Information Act will be laughed out of court and can offer the subpoenaed party a realistic pursuit for punitive damages.

RENGACORP (anonymous profile)
March 30, 2013 at 5:56 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Dumb, they could've just shown streamed the video into the courtroom and left you alone. YT timestamps everything and you can always tell what time of day it is by the position of the sun.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
March 30, 2013 at 6:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Yeah no kidding. Now I've marked it private so nobody can benefit from the data now. What do you call twenty lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

RENGACORP (anonymous profile)
March 30, 2013 at 6:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'm posting the above comment/rant on facebook publicly so STIHL can see it quickly as they are apparently stalking me, (picturing Leatherface in a three-piece-suit wielding a STIHL brand saw)

RENGACORP (anonymous profile)
March 30, 2013 at 6:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

why were these guys doing this in mid-August heat?! Nonetheless, suing STIHL is insane & hoping here it's laughed out of court.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
March 31, 2013 at 12:53 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The insurance companies probably demand someone be sued.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
March 31, 2013 at 1:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Got a phone call today from 'Sheldon' representing STIHL. At this point they're guilty of stalking and harassing. He said they downloaded my youtube video and needed me to testify that it is my video. When I started to ask probing questions regarding their bully tactics he stuttered and frankly, sounded like a total amateur. Stupid monkeys.

RENGACORP (anonymous profile)
April 1, 2013 at 5:28 p.m. (Suggest removal)

get a lawyer and sue STIHL for harassing you.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
April 1, 2013 at 8:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Well, no calls today so maybe they got the hint. I know they're reading this for certain. I'd like to quote that line from THE RAINMAKER: " must be stupid, stupid, stupid."

RENGACORP (anonymous profile)
April 2, 2013 at 5:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Per RENGACORP's description of the video, it'd be impossible to ascertain the cause of the blaze from the recording. All the lawyers are trying to do is bill their client (STIHL) for more hours.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
April 2, 2013 at 6:29 p.m. (Suggest removal)

event calendar sponsored by: