Jesusita Fire Litigation Heats Up

Lawsuits Filed Against Trail Workers and Tool Manufacturer

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

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.


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