A neighbor’s tip helped authorities track down the man suspected of setting a 1,100-acre Southern California brush fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate.
Ramon Santos Rodriguez, a 48-year-old homeless man, was charged Tuesday in connection with the Palisades Fire in Pacific Palisades. He faces one felony count each of arson of a structure or forest, and arson during a state of emergency.
An ACS security unit was talking to the man on Palisades Drive when Highlands resident Matt Blake drove past and recognized him, according to Blake's account to the online site Circling the News. Blake drove back, shared his knowledge of the suspect description with the security unit, and they caught up with the man down the road. Blake credited a neighbor with assisting. Not far up canyon, Blake then contacted firefighters who told him they had seen the man walking away from a trailhead. Before police arrived, the first of several units from another local security company, Palisades Patrol, also came to the scene.
“His appearance was something that told him this man might be related to the fire and was probably somebody who either needed some help or probably had some information,” said Scott Wagenseller, CEO of Palisades Patrol.
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Four members of Wageseller’s team responded and tried to communicate with the man, who identified himself as Ramon. They said he smelled of fire smoke and appeared disoriented.
Authorities responded to the scene and arrested Santos Rodriguez. He was treated at hospital for smoke inhalation.
It was not immediately clear whether he has an attorney.
Firefighting helicopter pilots reported a man in the fire zone when they responded to the area after reports of a fire late Friday night. The man was seen lighting fires before disappearing into brush, authorities said.
Investigators said they believe Santos Rodriguez is the same man seen by the pilots.
Rodriguez pleaded not guilty and was ordered 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.
With the suspected arsonist in custody, firefighters Wednesday began their fifth full day of battling the Palisades Fire. Containment was at 47 percent.
LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas said no structures have been lost, and the only injury has been a "minor eye injury" to a firefighter. About 450 firefighters remained on the fire lines Tuesday.
About 1,000 Topanga Canyon-area residents who were evacuated over the weekend were allowed to return home Monday evening, and the LAFD announced at about 8:40 p.m. Tuesday that all evacuation orders had been lifted.
LAFD arson investigators and Los Angeles police had initially detained and questioned another man in connection with the fire, but released him Saturday night. That man had his photo published by the Citizen personal safety app, which also posted a $30,000 reward offer.
Citizen issued a statement acknowledging that the app "publicly posted the photo and offered a cash reward for information without formal coordination with the appropriate agencies. Once we realized this error, we immediately retracted the photo and reward offer. We are actively working to improve our internal processes to ensure this does not occur again. This was a mistake we are taking very seriously."
Terrazas, the LAFD chief, told reporters at a Monday morning briefing that the LAFD's "Arson Counterterrorism Section, along with LAPD, have aggressively pursued all tips and all leads."
"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 (Sunday) at 2:30 p.m. and is in custody. It is in an active investigation. … We feel we have the right person."
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 Wednesday 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.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department was involved in a unified command with the Los Angeles Fire Department and Cal Fire.