A power tool company that was sued by more than 70 victims of the 2009 Jesusita Fire recently settled the lawsuit. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
More than 70 people affected by the wildfire were listed in a suit filed against STIHL, the manufacturer of the power tools thought to have caused the blaze.
The Jesusita Fire ignited on the afternoon of May 5, 2009, along a trail below Cathedral Peak in the foothills above Santa Barbara. Eighty houses were destroyed and 15 others were damaged as the flames burned across 9,000 acres.
The lawsuit against STIHL was filed July 14, 2011, a little more than a year after two local contractors, Craig Ilenstine and Dana Larsen, pleaded no contest to charges of trail clearing without proper firefighting equipment.
The pair were using metal-bladed tools the morning the blaze started. The men were sentenced to 250 hours of community service and three years of probation after the initial charge of operating without a hot work permit was dismissed.
Los Angeles-based attorney Brian Heffernan represented the victims and submitted a complaint that accuses the tool company of a failure to warn and of negligence.
On Friday, Heffernan said the terms of the settlement were confidential and that he couldn’t comment on them.
“The plaintiffs are very pleased that the dispute is resolved and hope that some good came from the case in the area of fire safety," he said. "There were some flagrant safety lapses that transpired on May 5 and on many occasions prior to that, and, hopefully, Santa Barbarans will not be subjected to this type of dangerous conduct in the future."
Heffernan said the combination of rocks and metal blades are a bad mix on a hot day.
“Even Cal Fire crews have accidentally started fires using metal-bladed brush cutters," he said. “The machines are clearly being used in fire-risk areas, and they are very effective at clearing rugged brush typically found in high fire-risk areas. They are also very dangerous in that setting. It's an accident waiting to happen.”
Company representatives from STIHL did not respond to Noozhawk's requests for comment on the settlement.
The product in question was a STIHL FS 110 trimmer/brush cutter, and the complaint details Larsen’s and Ilenstine’s activities with that tool the morning of the fire. Both men were using the brush knife cutting tool, a three-point metal blade attachment, to clear the trail.
The lawsuit said the instruction manual warned that contact with solid objects such as stones or rocks should be avoided to prevent personal injury, but it did not confirm any warnings or cautions regarding the potential for ignition due to spark production using the brush knife or any other rigid metal STIHL accessories.
The complaint also states that the tool’s potential for spark production was confirmed during a test with an identical tool and attachment.
The product’s instruction manual includes 89 warnings, 12 of which deal with the risk of fire. But “there are zero warnings in the manual nor on the brush cutters regarding the risk of fire as a result of a rugged terrain/metal blade interaction,” according to the complaint.