Fire Season

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Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer

Canyon Arson, Brush Fires and the Role of the Homeless in High-Risk Season

By MATTHEW MEYER | Reporter

On the heels of summer brush fires in Topanga and Calabasas, the human role in Southern California’s often devastating wildfires has taken center stage in Pacific Palisades.

While firefighters still battled the Topanga Canyon blaze over the Fourth of July holiday, neighbors in the Potrero Canyon area raised concerns about two small-scale arson incidents involving minors.

Palisadian Lorie Cudzil, whose home overlooks the portion of Potrero behind the Palisades Recreation Center, spotted the flames on both occasions.

The first incident occurred in mid-June. After noticing two preteen boys playing in the canyon, Cudzil suddenly spotted flames and smoke emanating from the area.

While she ran inside to call 911, workers at her home ran from the backyard down into the canyon to help extinguish the flames.

The two boys responsible for the small fire appeared apologetic, but fled before LAFD arrived to thoroughly douse the area and ensure it would not spread.

Cudzil told the Palisadian-Post that it appeared the kids were “just having fun” without thinking of the consequences—one worker suggested that they might have been trying to “smoke out” an animal burrowed in a hole nearby.

The second canyon incident, in late June, seemed more “pre-meditated.”

Flames and smoke once again emanated from the canyon where three teenage boys had been spotted.

The boys fled as Cudzil’s husband ran to extinguish the flames and she called for yet another LAFD response.

After the fire was quickly extinguished, it became clear that the teens had gathered brush onto a concrete slab with the purpose of building a fire.

Cudzil told the Post that she didn’t want to be alarmist, and that she was grateful for LAFD’s swift response in both cases.

Still, the incidents occurring in such quick succession made her and her neighbors fear for the worst-case scenario.

“This could turn into a tragedy so quickly,” she said, encouraging Palisadians to keep an eye on the canyon.

LAPD Senior Lead Officer Michael Moore told the Post that he’s aware of similar incidents involving Palisadian minors in the past, particularly once school lets out for the summer.

Moore called Potrero Canyon a “high fire hazard area,” and noted that the canyon—where Palisadians often walk dogs and hike with family—is technically closed to the public.

He added that community officer Rusty Redican patrols the canyon with an off-road vehicle on occasion.

A captain with local LAFD Station 69 called the minor arson incidents “unusual.”

More common, he told the Post, are brush fires involving homeless encampments, where small flames used for cooking or warmth can accidentally spread.

That was the case in a June 2013 brush fire that claimed about an acre in the lower Highlands off Palisades Drive.

The Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness—who provide services and outreach to the area’s homeless community—have also identified encampment fires as a key issue for the summer.

The group has scheduled a panel discussion on the issue for Monday, July 17 at the Palisades Branch Library from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

After this winter’s unusually heavy rain, and Los Angeles’ corresponding “super bloom,” brushy overgrowth in the Palisades’ bluffs and parklands is now particularly combustible in the dry heat.

And intentional or not, studies indicate that humans are often at the root of the blazes that erupt here each fire season.

A University of Colorado Boulder study this year indicated that more than 80 percent of the past two decades’ U.S. wildfires had a human cause.

The state agency Cal Fire estimates that that number could be higher than 90 percent in California.