Pixel Tracker

Monday, February 18 , 2019, 6:58 pm | Fair 51º


Judge Rules Permit Charge Irrelevant in Jesusita Case

The DA's office says the decision rules out restitution, but the defendants still face charges of not having proper firefighting equipment

A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge ruled Monday that county hot-work permit statutes don’t apply in the case against two men accused of using power tools to clear trails near the origin of the May 2009 Jesusita Fire.

Judge Jean Dandona said there’s no suggestion in county code that an operational permit is required for work similar to the stipulated activity of the defendants.

Craig Ilenstine and Dana Larsen still face the charge of not having proper firefighting equipment on hand, and could be sentenced to jail time and fines of up to $25,000. The men, who are being tried together, have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Without the permit-related charge, however, restitution is ruled out as far as the District Attorney’s Office is concerned.

“There’s no cause or connection between not having equipment and the fire starting,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian said.

At Monday’s preliminary hearing, defense attorneys Sam Eaton and Larry Powell reiterated that applying a hot-work building standards code — which uses terms such as welding and grinding — to using what is essentially a weed wacker is irrational.

“It’s terrible that (the defendants) spent all this time and money on something that is so obvious,” Eaton said.

Lulejian’s witness at the hearing, Capt. Darrell Delgado of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said permits are needed for any work that produces sparks, but he wasn’t aware of any permits issued for brush-clearing or gardening-related activities.

Eaton and Powell, attorneys for Ilenstine and Larsen, respectively, asked Delgado if permits would be necessary for mowing a rocky lawn, using a barbecue with an open flame or for other activities that had a possibility of causing sparks or fire, and the witness answered that it all depended on the fire hazard.

Through questioning, Powell said it was difficult to know who to contact to even get a hot-work permit, and county fire’s information relating to wildfire preparedness, as well as requirements for weed abatement and defensible space, make no mention of needing a permit.

Lulejian played a video of an experiment done by the county fire department, and a shaky, handheld feed showed a man using a metal-bladed, gas-powered weed wacker near Lake Cachuma in August. The blade caused some sparks when the operator held it near a rock, and several zoom shots showed what appeared to be wisps of smoke coming up from areas that had been cleared. Delgado said the exercise caused two small fires, which personnel then extinguished.

The judge called it “marginally relevant,” and Eaton argued that the defendants are not being tried for starting a fire.

The defense drove home their point of confusion and improper notice with the testimony of George Davidson, a Montecito resident and former Carpinteria/Summerland fire captain. He said he has used chain saws, weed wackers and other tools to clear brush on his land near Westmont College, and that he was never aware a permit was needed.

After the media attention given to this case, Davidson said he tried in vain to get a permit, when his local fire protection district couldn’t direct him to anyone with the information, though he didn’t contact the county fire department directly, he said in his testimony.

When asked about Lulejian’s “phenomenon” of sparks smoldering in brush for 30 minutes then catching flame, he said it was possible but had never seen it.

The defense argued that the prosecution was going after the result instead of the activity, and that the rank-and-file citizen wouldn’t know such permits are necessary.

“Frankly, your honor, the fire departments don’t know what to tell you,” Powell said.

A readiness and settlement conference in the case has been scheduled for early June.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Talk to Us!

Please take Noozhawk's audience survey to help us understand what you expect — and want — from us. It'll take you just a few minutes. Thank you!

Get Started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.