Two men charged in connection with last year’s ferocious Jesusita Fire that burned dozens of homes in the hills above Santa Barbara have pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of a county-code that requires anyone performing certain work that could spark a fire to have a shovel or fire extinguisher on hand.
Dana Neil Larsen, 45, and Craig William Ilenstine, 50, both of Santa Barbara, entered the pleas this week before Superior Court Judge Jean Dandona in Santa Barbara. No-contest pleas are treated the same as guilty pleas for sentencing purposes.
Larsen’s attorney, Larry Powell, has said that the men were using weed trimmers to clear brush for a mountain-bike trail.
The Jesusita fire sparked May 5, 2009, adjacent to the Jesusita Trail, and burned for 15 days before it was declared contained.
The blaze destroyed 80 homes, blackened 8,773 acres and cost more than $19.5 million to fight.
Dandona sentenced the pair to 250 hours of community service, three years probation and a $490 fine each, said Senior Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian, the case prosecutor.
Lulejian said he recommended a sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for each man.
“We argued that the only good thing that can come out of this case is deterrents,” Lulejian said.
In April, Dandona ruled that a second misdemeanor count that the men were charged with — alleging that they violated code that requires a permit for anyone doing work that could spark a blaze in a high-fire-danger area — did not apply in the case.
The judge based her ruling on her finding that code requiring Hot Work Permits only pertains to structures.
Prosecutors were not able to pursue criminal restitution against Larsen and Ilenstine unless they were convicted of the count concerning Hot Work Permits.
Lulejian said the men can be sent to jail if they violate the terms of their probation.
“The court is correct in that this was a mistake, so to speak, or an accident,” he said, but added that people should not be doing “foolish things” like throwing sparks into dry grass.
Ilenstine’s attorney, Samuel Eaton, said the defendants pleaded to doing work in the back country without a shovel or fire extinguisher at hand.
“It has nothing to do with starting a fire,” Eaton said, noting that if the men’s actions sparked the fire, it ignited hours after they left.
Eaton called the prospect of Ilenstine and Larsen spending six months in jail “totally inappropriate.”
Larsen’s attorney could not be reached for comment.