As the school year winds down, it seems as though university and county officials can already detect the scent of burnt upholstery in the air.
Last summer, the county government passed an ordinance to try and stop the “tradition.” This spring, foot patrol officers will be wandering the streets – out of uniform – to try and catch perpetrators in the act. And even though the fires burn off campus, the university is ready to discipline anyone caught setting the blaze.
Between worrying about the environmental effects and threatening anyone who participates in the act, community and county officials are all fretting over Isla Vista’s favorite spring-time activity: couch burning.
To try and douse the fires before they start, UCSB and the Isla Vista Foot Patrol are already reminding students that igniting unwanted furniture will also burn a large hole in the perpetrators’ pockets. The bottom line, IVFP Lt. Sol Linver said, is that couch burners will be held accountable.
“Because it has turned into such a problem, the district attorney’s office agreed that there will be no pleading,” Linver said. “There will be maximum fines.”
According to Linver, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office was prompted to increase the penalties for couch burning and deny all pleas involving the fires last year when 18 people – nine of them UCSB students – were arrested for burning couches. In total, 31 couches were burned last season. The new consequences include a maximum $1,000 fine, up to 100 hours of community service and three to six months in county jail.
To try and catch perpetrators in the act, Linver said undercover foot patrol officers will be used to monitor couch burning this year, and anyone starting the fire or adding to it will be arrested.
“The least consequence is getting caught,” Linver said. “The most serious consequence is that a fire gets out of control and catches a house or car on fire and causes serious property damage.”
Although the black marks that litter the streets of I.V. are scorched into the pavement year-round, couch burning is an I.V. spring rite of sorts. There is no single reason to explain the increase in futon fires during spring, but perhaps the prospect of moving out in mere weeks may make the typical I.V. resident’s filthy couches seem a little more dispensable.
To try and combat the problem, last summer the county passed the “Fluffy Couch Ordinance.” According to Linver, the ordinance is not directly related to couch burning, but makes it illegal for any “indoor” furniture to be left outdoors. At the time, county supervisors said they were trying to remove the kindling for the fires, and thereby keep firefighters from wasting their time and taxpayer dollars.
“Couch burning ties up a fire engine and company,” Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said. “It also messes up the roads for bikers and skateboarders.”
Firestone, whose constituency includes I.V., said he voted on the ordinance to try and keep students from making a costly mistake.
“Someone could have some lark and wind up in court,” Firestone said. “It’s infinitely dumb.”
The university is also in on the act, and UCSB students are subject to university discipline, Deborah Fleming, associate dean of students, said.
“There’s a catch-all clause at UCSB,” Fleming said. “Students engaging in activities affecting safety of community are taken into extended jurisdiction.”
According to Fleming, the university’s consequences vary depending on the case, but UCSB has prosecuted several students for couch burning.
Students themselves have also taken action against the environmental consequences of couch burning. Environmental Affairs Board Co-chair Ryan Andersen said EAB discourages couch burning because of its effect on the environment and the toxins it releases.
“Couches are made of plastics and when plastics burn they’re bad for the atmosphere,” Andersen said. “We live in a very ecologically sensitive area since we’re less than a mile from the ocean. When you’re burning couches you do have the potential for embers and debris to go into the ocean.”
Expanding upon the normal official reasons not to burn couches, Firestone said the consequences do not stop at legal penalties or environmental degradation. To demonstrate, he created a list of the “top ten” reasons not to burn couches. Firestone’s top ten includes the following: the fact that couch burning is not cool, and that setting furniture ablaze does not necessarily impress the hot partiers watching.