The homeless man who allegedly started the 1,158-acre brush fire in Pacific Palisades on Friday night was arrested after investigators sent to the scene saw him starting other fires in the area the following day, the Los Angeles Fire Department said Tuesday.
Containment of the fire grew to 32% Tuesday, and its size was downgraded from 1,325 acres after remapping, officials said, as about 1,000 Topanga Canyon-area residents evacuated over the weekend were allowed to return home.
Firefighters were sent to the 1800 block of Michael Lane to battle the flames after the fire was reported at 10 p.m. Friday.
“Just after midnight, LAFD arson investigators were dispatched to the scene to determine the origin and cause of the fire,” the department reported. “Due to the inaccessible terrain and darkness, investigators gathered preliminary information and returned the next day.”
On Saturday morning, LAFD helicopter pilots saw a man moving around in the brush along a steep hillside near the fire, and a Los Angeles Police Department air patrol was dispatched to the scene to monitor him. Police officers kept watch on the ground while the LAPD Air Support Division “provided eyes in the sky,” the LAFD reported.
“During an aerial observation, the Tactical Flight Officer witnessed the individual ignite multiple additional fires,” the LAFD said.
LAFD arson investigators requested assistance from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Emergency Services Detail to find and apprehend the suspect in the rugged terrain.
“Deputies were lowered into the brush to begin their search,” the LAFD reported. “Because the fires were growing rapidly, deputies were forced to retreat,”
At about 11 a.m. Sunday, the man “emerged from the brush in the 1200 block of Palisades Drive,” the LAFD reported.
“A private security officer in the area recognized the person as a possible suspect and notified LAPD and LAFD (and) police officers arrived and detained the suspect.”
Ramon Santos Rodriguez, who is homeless, was arrested and booked on suspicion of arson, officials said. Rodriguez, 48, was being held on $75,000 bail, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
On Tuesday morning, arson investigators were planning to present the case to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office for felony filing considerations, the LAFD reported.
City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is running for mayor in 2022, said the arrest shows the danger of the city’s ongoing homelessness crisis.
“Our homelessness crisis is destroying neighborhoods and endangering the lives of the housed and unhoused,” Buscaino said. “Over sixty percent of the fires that the LAFD has responded to this year have been related to homelessness. Allowing unregulated sprawling encampments is not compassionate, it’s reckless. That’s why we must act now on passing regulations that will return the rights of every Angeleno to enjoy our public spaces, and prohibit encampments whenever people are offered shelter. We must support safe and clean sidewalks, parks, and beaches. We must support a livable city where we can raise our children without being subjected rampant crime on our streets.”
Meanwhile, firefighters made significant overnight progress on this fire, as containment lines were improved and firefighters were able to make access to remote areas to mop up.
On Monday night, Topanga Canyon Boulevard was reopened to residents, who were advised to be ready to show ID or a Topanga access card for entry.
No changes have been made to an evacuation warning issued Sunday in the city of Los Angeles for all homes north of Chastain Parkway in the 1500 block to Calle Del Cielo. The warning area includes Calle De Sarah, Calle Bellevista and all homes west of Calle Del Cielo and Ave Ashley up to the hills. That means residents should be ready to leave if ordered.
LAFD arson investigators and Los Angeles police had detained two people in connection with the fire, and one was questioned and released Saturday night.
“Regarding the cause, it is labeled suspicious,” LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas said at Monday morning briefing. “The LAFD Arson Counterterrorism Section, along with LAPD, have aggressively pursued all tips and all leads. I want to have a special thank you to the community that provided us those tips and leads. We have to work together as a community. This problem is so significant in terms of major brush fires.
“We count on those tips coming in, and then we vet the tips and we pursue investigations,” Terrazas said. “And I’m happy to say that we did detain one person and released them and determined that the first person was not a suspect. The second person was arrested yesterday (Sunday) at 2:30 p.m. and is in custody. It is in an active investigation. I cannot give you any more details than that, but the person in custody we feel we have the right person.”
On Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Rodriguez “is getting medical treatment right now.” KTLA reported that he was treated for smoke inhalation.
Terrazas said no structures have been lost in the fire and the only injury has been a “minor eye injury” to a firefighter.
About 450 firefighters were assigned to battle the flames. They were being aided by multiple water-dropping helicopters and three fixed-wing retardant-dropping aircraft, which were put into service when weather conditions improved for flying Monday afternoon.
The mayor noted the “challenging terrain.”
“As you’ve heard, this is about 75 years since we’ve had a fire there. Some of the brush is 20 to 30 feet high,” Garcetti said.
Terrazas warned hikers to stay away from the area while the firefighting effort was underway.
Topanga Elementary Charter School, at 22075 Topanga School Road, remained closed Tuesday due to air quality and safety concerns caused by the Palisades fire, according to the school’s website. Child supervision was not available but remote learning was underway.
Meanwhile, air-quality officials extended a smoke advisory through Tuesday afternoon due to large amounts of smoke billowing near homes in the area and advised those who smell smoke or see ash to limit exposure by remaining indoors with windows and doors closed and avoiding vigorous physical activity.
Topanga Canyon Boulevard was closed in both directions to all but residents between Mulholland Drive and Pacific Coast Highway.
The L.A. County Fire Department was involved in a unified command with the Los Angeles Fire Department and Cal Fire.