Suspect Charged With Two Counts of Arson
By SARAH SHMERLING | Editor-in-Chief
Multiple agencies battled the Palisades fire, which first started Friday night in a remote area off Michael Lane and Palisades Court and was reported to be 1,158 acres with 72% containment as of Thursday morning, May 20.
“Crews continue to assault the fire by air and by ground to continue increasing containment,” according to a report by Los Angeles Fire Department Spokesperson Nicholas Prange at 10 a.m.
The fire, reported by LAFD at 10:02 p.m. May 14 and since determined to be arson, was “progressing slowly,” growing to approximately 10 acres as of 11:59 p.m. that night, according to Prange.
“When the first responding engines from LAFD arrived, crews encountered multiple, separate, slow-moving fires in steep and remote terrain with thick understory dry and dead vegetation,” according to LAFD. “Immediately, the department launched an all-out attack—deploying dozens of engines, aircraft, bulldozers, water tenders and more than 100 firefighters.”
Though the fire was burning through “heavy brush and steep terrain,” firefighters held the fire at approximately 15 acres overnight in conditions that were described as “cool and wet” and “no-to-low winds.”
A flare-up within the incident, reported at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, May 15, had the fire reaching 100 acres, according to LAFD Spokesperson Margaret Stewart.
“By 6:30 a.m. on Saturday … [the] fire was estimated at 15 acres,” LAFD Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas said in a press conference Monday morning at Will Rogers State Beach. “Unfortunately, by 4:30 p.m., an additional burn area emerged north of the original fire. Within about one hour, the fire grew to 750 acres.”
The flare-up and expanded acreage prompted the closure of Topanga Canyon Boulevard between Pacific Coast Highway and Mulholland, as well as evacuation orders for Zone 4 and Zone 6 of Topanga, which remained in place until Monday evening at 6 p.m. when they were lifted.
“The weather remained cool and moist overnight, which led to calmer fire activity,” according to Stewart at 7:30 a.m. Sunday. “However, as it warms up today the conditions are expected to change as the vegetation in this area is very dry and has not burned in 50-plus years.”
At 12:50 p.m. on Sunday, May 16, Los Angeles County Fire Department reported the fire had reached 1,325 acres, a figure that was later decreased Tuesday morning to 1,158 due to “better mapping.”
Though no evacuation orders were made within the city of Los Angeles, an evacuation warning was put into place at 2 p.m. Sunday for an area of the Highlands—which was lifted Tuesday afternoon at 1 p.m.
On Sunday at 2:30 p.m., an arrest of the suspected arsonist responsible for the fire was made, Mayor Eric Garcetti reported during the Monday morning press conference.
One individual had been detained and released, but a second individual, later identified as Ramon Santos Rodriguez, was arrested. The LAFD Arson Counter Terrorism Section is leading the investigation, with assistance from LAPD.
“Just after midnight [on Friday], LAFD arson investigators were dispatched to the scene to determine the origin and cause of the fire,” LAFD reported. “Due to the inaccessible terrain and darkness, investigators gathered preliminary information and returned the next day.”
LAFD helicopters reported they observed an adult male moving around in the brush along a steep hillside near the fire, with LAPD air patrol dispatched to monitor the individual. During the aerial observation, the Tactical Flight Officer “witnessed the individual ignite multiple additional fires.”
“Arson investigators from LAFD requested the assistance of specialized deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Emergency Services Detail to locate and apprehend the alleged suspect within the rugged terrain,” according to LAFD. “Deputies were lowered into the brush to begin their search. Because the fires were growing rapidly, deputies were forced to retreat.”
At 10:56 a.m. on Sunday, the individual emerged from the brush in the 1200 block of Palisades Drive. LAFD and LAPD were notified by a private security officer in the area, who recognized the individual as a possible suspect.
“Police officers arrived and detained the suspect only 36 hours after the fire began,” LAFD reported. “The suspect was transported to the hospital and treated for smoke inhalation.”
Following interviews from eyewitnesses, firefighters and police officers, in addition to analyzing burn pattern and documenting the fire scene, arson investigators determined the fire was “incendiary in violation of section 451(c) of the California Penal Code Arson of Forest Land.”
Rodriguez, a 48-year-old male reported to be homeless, was charged Tuesday with one felony count each of arson of a structure or forest and arson during a state of emergency, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
“He pleaded not guilty and was ordered to be held in lieu of $350,000 bail while awaiting a June 1 hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to require him to stand trial,” according to City News Service Tuesday evening.
Rodriguez was previously misidentified by LAFD as Ramon Rodriguez Flores, the district attorney’s office spokesperson reported to the LA Times. LAFD PIO Erik Scott stated that “the arrestee has multiple name variations in law enforcement databases” and “the name given to LAFD Arson Investigators is Rodriguez Flores, Ramon.”
Garcetti shared during the Monday press conference that 530 personnel from 72 different resources were fighting the fire.
The location of the fire fell within the “State Responsibility Area,” prompting a joint response from CAL FIRE, LACoFD and LAFD.
On Tuesday afternoon, all “backcountry trails and areas of Topanga State Park” were “closed to public access” until further notice.
As the Post went to print Tuesday, 710 structures were reported to have been threatened, with zero structures destroyed or damaged. One firefighter sustained a minor eye injury.
“Firefighters made significant overnight progress on this fire,” according to a Tuesday morning Palisades Fire Incident Report released by LAFD. “Containment lines were improved and firefighters were able to make access to remote areas of the fire to mop-up.”
This is a developing story. Updates will be available. City News Service contributed to this report.
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