With June and the end of classes in sight, local authorities are also eyeing the return of a notorious Isla Vista pastime: the destruction of unwanted furniture by fire.
As couch burning season approaches, the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District is urging locals to think about alternative ways to dispose of their surplus mattresses and easy chairs, while the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. warns potential arsonists about the danger caused by the flaming debris.
Jacob Womac, Adopt-a-Block supervisor for the IVRPD, said he is concerned about the return of furniture burning season – which traditionally occurs as residents prepare to move out of I.V. as their June leases expire – and is preparing to patrol the neighborhood. He said he plans to staple fliers on any couch he sees that looks like it could end up being burned. The fliers will include information on how people may dispose of their unwanted couches.
One alternative is giving the couches to Give Sale at Embarcadero Hall from June 8 to 17, Womac said. People will be able to drop off any household items from 4 to 8 p.m. After 10 days, all the items will be sold and profits will be donated to nonprofit organizations in I.V.
Womac said couch burning causes a problem because local residents often burn the couches in parks or in the street, leaving the IVRPD to deal with the burnt remains. Because he supervises the Adopt-a-Block program, which organizes volunteers to clean I.V. streets every week, Womac said he and his workers are often responsible for clearing the messes the couch burners make.
“It ruins the streets,” Womac said. “Environmentally it is a pretty bad thing. … The burnt debris left over is a big problem as well.”
SB Fire Dept. Captain Wes Herman, of County Fire Station 17, which responds to a majority of fire incidents in I.V., said the couch fires are very dangerous and can often ignite adjacent garages, dumpsters, trees and cars. Ten years ago, Herman said two intoxicated men decided to jump over a burning couch from opposite sides. He said the two collided midair and fell on top of the flaming couch.
“Ten years ago it became popular to run and jump over the couch,” Herman said. “That was the peak of stupidity.”
Since then, Herman said the number of couch fire incidents per year has decreased, but these numbers frequently shift every two or three years. He said couch fire rates have decreased by nearly 75 percent in comparison to some of the worst years, and he anticipates these figures will remain the same over the next few weeks.
“Last year there were 25 to 35. Some years there used to be up to 50 or 60, some years near the 100 mark,” Herman said. “Since January, I have seen one or two fires. In the last 12 months, four to five.”
SB Fire Dept. Captain Charlie Johnson, who retired last year, said he thinks I.V. residents decide to burn their couches because it is easier than paying to have the couches removed. He said he can remember nights when Station 17 would be called to respond to eight or nine couch fires per night between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., and these calls would often keep firefighters from responding to other, more immediate emergencies.
“What we have been dealing with for years is this attitude that they should be allowed to do this,” Johnson said.
If more couch burners were caught and punished, Johnson said he thinks there would be fewer incidents each year.
“If people could be caught and thrown out of school, it would cut down on the problem,” Johnson said. “But until people are punished, it will continue.”
Couch burners face charges of arson or fueling a fire if caught by police. A conviction on either charge can carry a fine of up to $1,000 and as much as a year in jail.
Herman said firefighters have little control over catching couch burners, but he said Isla Vista Foot Patrol officers often take pre-emptive measures against situations that could result in a couch fire.
“We put the fires out and move on,” Herman said. “Officers often take a position of observation and arrest anyone who adds anything to the fire like accelerant. If they see kids stacking couches they take a position where they can observe and then take them in after they have committed a crime.”
Derek Johnson, IVRPD general manager, said he hopes residents refrain from lighting their couches on fire this year, but instead choose a safer and cleaner option.
“Give your couch to a worthy cause rather than light it on fire,” Derek Johnson said. “There are proper ways to dispose of your couch that do not result in damage to private and public property.”