A 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 reported Tuesday.
Ramon Santos Rodriguez, 48, was charged Tuesday with one felony count each of arson of a structure or forest and arson during a state of emergency.
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.
Meanwhile, firefighters made significant overnight progress on the fire, as containment lines were improved and firefighters were able to make access to remote areas to mop up.
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Topanga Canyon Boulevard was reopened to the public at 1 p.m. Tuesday, when officials also lifted an evacuation warning that had been issued Sunday for all homes north of Chastain Parkway in the 1500 block to Calle Del Cielo. The warning area included Calle De Sarah, Calle Bellevista and all homes west of Calle Del Cielo and Ave Ashley up to the hills.
Containment of the fire grew to 32% Tuesday as its size was downgraded from 1,325 acres after remapping. Containment increased to 47% by Tuesday evening, the LAFD announced.
About 1,000 Topanga Canyon-area residents 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.
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 sent to the scene to determine the origin and cause of the fire, and due to the inaccessible terrain and darkness, 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.''
About 11 a.m. Sunday, according to the LAFD, the man emerged from the brush in the 1200 block of Palisades Drive, and 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.'' He was ultimately booked on suspicion of arson after receiving medical treatment, reportedly for smoke inhalation.
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 60% 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.''
LAFD arson investigators and Los Angeles police 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 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.''
LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas 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 said no structures were lost and the only injury has been a "minor eye injury'' to a firefighter.
About 450 firefighters remained on the fire lines on Tuesday. During the firefight, crews on the ground were aided by water-dropping helicopters and three fixed-wing retardant-dropping aircraft.
Mayor Eric Garcetti noted that crews had to contend with "challenging terrain,'' adding that it had been "about 75 years since we've had a fire there. Some of the brush is 20 to 30 feet high.''
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.