Two men whose brush-clearing efforts along a local trail allegedly sparked the devastating Jesusita Fire in May have been charged with misdemeanor violations of county codes, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday.
Craig William Ilenstine, 50, and Dana Neil Larsen, 45, each face a single count of violating county codes that require a “hot work” permit for anyone cutting, welding or doing similar work that might spark a blaze in high-fire-danger areas.
In addition, the men allegedly did not take the required precautions of watching or having someone watch the area they worked in for at least 30 minutes after they used their weed cutters, to ensure they did not leave any smoldering spots.
If convicted, the two face fines of up to $25,000 and up to 90 days in county jail. They will be ordered to appear in court to answer the charges in January, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Prosecutors said that, if they gain a conviction, they also will seek to have the two men required to make full restitution to victims of the fire, which destroyed 80 homes and charred 8,773 acres in the hills above Santa Barbara and Montecito.
Daniel Berlant, spokesman for Cal Fire, said that the agency is conducting its own investigation to determine whether negligence or a violation of law was committed by the suspects, and could seek civil cost recovery on behalf of the state if so.
The Jesusita Fire, which prompted widespread evacuations, ignited on May 5 adjacent to the Jesusita Trail, and was declared contained on May 20.
Thirty-two firefighters were injured fighting the blaze, which cost $19.5 million to suppress.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian, the case prosecutor, said Larsen and Ilenstine live locally, but would not specify where.
Little else was known about them, although Ilenstine apparently is a 1977 graduate of San Marcos High School in Goleta.
The men are scheduled to be arraigned, or formally charged, in a Santa Barbara courtroom on Jan. 15, Lulejian said.
They were not arrested, but were sent letters telling them to appear in court in January for their arraignment, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Prosecutors spent several months reviewing the findings of fire investigators concerning the fire prior to announcing charges in the case.
Capt. David Sadecki, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the primary investigating agency for the fire, could not be reached Thursday.
Andrew Madsen, spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest, said his understanding is that Larsen and Ilenstine are mountain-bike riders who were clearing the trails to make them more rideable .
They were not on an approved list of volunteers who take part in trail maintenance, Madsen said.
“There are folks that go out and do what we would call illegal trail maintenance,” he added.
The District’s Attorney’s Office said it has determined that it cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants had the mental state at the time of the alleged crime that would warrant a felony charge.
Lulejian said that the only felony charge that would have been considered in this case would be an allegation that the men recklessly started the fire.
However, Lulejian noted that now-retired Judge Zel Canter declined to hold two defendants charged with starting the 2007 Zaca Fire to answer felony charges that they recklessly started that blaze.
Two ranch employees who were reportedly grinding metal to repair a water pipeline were charged with starting the Zaca Fire, which scorched 240,207 acres in the Los Padres National Forest in fall 2007.
One of the men, Jose Jesus Cabrera, a foreman, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of negligently starting a fire, and charges were dropped against Santiago Iniguez Cervantes and the ranch, Rancho La Laguna LLC.
Lulejian said that in that situation, the defendants’ actions resulted in embers being thrown directly onto dry weeds.
The prosecutor said he could not discuss the facts of the Jesusita case beyond what was sent out in a press release.
“I can’t get into the specifics of the situation,” Lulejian said.
The attorney representing Ilenstine, Samuel Eaton, was not accepting phone calls on the matter, according to a woman who answered the phone at his office.
Michael Damen, an attorney representing Larsen, said he was not prepared to make a comment on the case.