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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 8:01 am | Fair 42º


Jesusita Fire Victims File Lawsuit Against STIHL Tool Company, Two Santa Barbara Stores

The manufacturer, whose tools two local contractors were using the day the blaze started, is accused of failing to warn users of the potential for ignition

More than 70 people affected by the May 2009 Jesusita Fire are listed on a lawsuit against the company that manufactures the power tools thought to have caused the fire.

The lawsuit against STIHL was filed July 14, a little more than a year after Craig Ilenstine and Dana Larsen pleaded no contest to charges of trail clearing without proper firefighting equipment.

The pair are local contractors who were using metal-bladed tools the morning the Jesusita Fire started. The blaze ravaged nearly 9,000 acres, destroyed 80 homes and damaged 15.

Last summer, Ilenstine and Larsen 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.

Now, Los Angeles-based attorney Brian Heffernan is representing the victims and has submitted a complaint that accuses the tool company of a failure to warn and of negligence. The Santa Barbara stores that sold the two power tools — A-Ok Mower Shop on Milpas Street and Orchard Services on State Street — are also listed as defendants on the case, along with STIHL.

The product in question is a STIHL FS 110 trimmer/brushcutter, and the complaint details Larsen’s and Ilentsine’s activities the morning of the fire with that tool. Both men were using the brush knife cutting tool, a three-point metal blade attachment, to clear the trail.

“While the instruction manual warned that contact with solid objects such as stories or rocks should be avoided to prevent personal injury, 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 reads.

The complaint also states that the tool’s potential for spark production was confirmed during a test with an identical tool and attachment. County Fire investigator Darryl Delgado tested an identical tool in similar conditions and recorded a 10-minute video of the results. Within three to five minutes of using the tool in similar conditions, “he had started two to three fires,” said Senior Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian, who prosecuted the case against Larsen and Ilenstine last summer. That test was shown in court, and is mentioned in the complaint submitted by Heffernan.

“If you hit a rotating metal blade to a rock, you’re going to get a spark,” Lulejian said.

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 brushcutters regarding the risk of fire as a result of a rugged terrain/metal blade interaction,” according to the complaint.

Heffernan told Noozhawk on Tuesday that even when the product is used exactly as intended, it’s an extreme fire hazard.

“(The company) says this is a great way to cut brush, but if you go out and do what they told you to, you could start a fire,” he said, adding that a warning is needed right on the machine advising users of the fire dangers. “We know that the machine caused the fire. That’s been established. The only issue is is that something that consumers should be told about or should they know about that clairvoyantly?”

Heffernan said some of the plaintiffs came to him during the court proceedings last summer, and some of them came after the sentencing. All of the plaintiffs are residents of the area affected by the fire, and owned homes on Tunnel Road, Las Canoas, Mission Canyon Road and others.

He said he hasn’t yet heard any response from STIHL but that the company has 30 days to respond. Noozhawk’s request for comment from STIHL went unanswered Tuesday. The case is slated to appear in court Nov. 16.

Another civil case is also in the works, this time against Larsen and Ilenstine. The case was filed on May 3 and was submitted by the state attorney general on behalf of CAL FIRE, which is seeking damages from Ilenstine and Larsen. That complaint says “public entities can recover fire suppression costs from persons who negligently or in violation of the law set or allow a fire to be set, or kindle or attend a fire and allow it escape onto public or private property.”

Damages from the fire are estimated at more than $35 million, not including investigation costs and attorney’s fees, according to the complaint.

That case will be in court next on Sept. 6.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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