For the second time in two years, Santa Barbara County Senior Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian is assigned to a case involving hot work that may have caused Santa Barbara area wildfires.
In both the 2007 Zaca Fire and this May’s Jesusita Fire, men were charged with performing hot work without permits — using a grinder on a metal pipe and using a metal-blade, gas-powered weed cutter, respectively.
In both cases, felony counts of recklessly causing a fire were not pursued; instead, the suspects are charged with misdemeanor counts of hot work without necessary permits.
Craig Ilenstine and Dana Larsen were recently charged in connection with the Jesusita Fire, as officials say they never applied for the required permit from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
They allegedly used the power tools on May 5, the day the fire started on the Jesusita Trail in upper San Roque Canyon. Officials haven’t said why the men were clearing the trail.
The investigation came to the District Attorney’s Office in September, Acting District Attorney Josh Lynn said at a news conference Friday morning.
Four senior deputy district attorneys reviewed the case thoroughly and three more discussed the issue, and the resulting charges were an office decision, Lynn said. He is not involved in the investigation as his home was affected by the fire.
Given that the judge in the Zaca Fire case didn’t find that felony charges of recklessly setting a fire could be applied, the DA’s Office decided it couldn’t justify the filing in the Jesusita case, Lulejian said. “The case is simply not there,” he said.
Trail clearing is far from uncommon in the Jesusita Fire area, but typical practice involves hand tools or nonmetal blade power tools. With metal blades, hitting rocks or soil can cause embers hot enough to start a fire, Lulejian said.
“If you have a metal blade on any power tool of any kind, and you’re in the wildland areas using that, you have to have a permit first,” he said.
Hot work permits cost $99, according the Santa Barbara County Code, Chapter 15 (fire prevention). Permit holders are required to follow precautions to prevent any fire from escaping their control. Requirements include having firefighting equipment on hand, such as plenty of water and a shovel, and at least one person watching the area for at least 30 minutes after the work is done to make ensure there are no smoldering embers that could catch fire.
“These are two requirements that are important to this case and would have, we think, prevented this situation from occurring in the first place,” Lulejian said.
According to County Code, violating these requirements is punishable by fines and possible jail time. For a misdemeanor, punishment can be a fine up to $25,000 and/or imprisonment in the county jail for up to 180 days, depending on the circumstances.
The DA’s Office has said that in this case, the maximum amount of jail time would be 90 days, according to a news release issued Thursday.
The county Fire Department has received more hot work permit requests since the Zaca Fire, since people were more informed about the requirements, department spokesman David Sadecki said.
Most of the requests are for welding or grinding, but he said everyone using metal blade power tools in wilderness areas needs a permit — on private or public land.
Sadecki said he is not aware of any request for hot work permits involving trail work.
Its leaders go through training with the U.S. Forest Service, and workers have liability agreements, according to county Deputy Parks Director Erik Axelson. He said he wasn’t aware of any people who take trail clearing into their own hands.
Workers generally use hand tools, such as lopping shears and shovels, and are under close supervision, Axelson said.
He said doesn’t know Ilenstine and Larsen, and doesn’t think they ever participated in Santa Barbara Trail Council activities. “Their names are new to me,” he said.
The DA’s Office said it hopes the case will publicize the requirements for doing work in forest areas. Anyone unsure under which jurisdiction the work area falls — Forest Service, county or city — can call one to get sent in the right direction, Sadecki said.
The DA’s Office said it plans to seek restitution for the Jesusita Fire victims. Restitution is the victims’ rights to “out-of-pocket expenses they incurred as direct result or caused by the crime itself,” Lulejian said.
The prosecution must prove that the crime caused the fire in order to get restitution — something it plans to do during the sentencing hearing if it gets a conviction, Lulejian said.
Cal Fire said it plans to pursue civil cost recovery against the suspects.
County Fire Chief Mike Dyer said the cost to fight the fire was about $19.5 million. The blaze, which forced the evacuation of more than 35,000 people, destroyed 80 homes and damaged 15. More than 1,850 firefighters battled the 8,733-acre fire.
Ilenstine and Larsen will be arraigned in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in January.
— Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at email@example.com.