How Police, Firefighters And A Security Guard Caught The Palisades Fire Arson Suspect Who Was Hiding Out In The Hills – Update

By Matt Grobar, Tom Tapp

Ramon Santos Rodriguez LAFD

UPDATED with latest: 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 say they saw him starting other fires in the area the following day, the Los Angeles Fire Department said on Tuesday.

Ramon Santos Rodriguez, 48, has been in custody since Sunday. He was being treated for smoke inhalation while in custody and being held on $75,000 bail, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. On Tuesday Rodriguez 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.

“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.”

Rodriguez, who is homeless, was arrested and booked on suspicion of arson, officials said.

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.” (Note: The L.A. Times reported last week that 54% of the fires LAFD responded to this year, not 60%, were related to homelessness.)

Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigators and Los Angeles police had detained two people in connection with the fire, and one was questioned and released Saturday night. The other person, Rodriguez, was interviewed on Sunday and was then arrested. “We feel we have the right person,” LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas said at a Monday morning briefing.

The chief said the fact that the fire had “multiple points of ignition,” which is unusual, made investigators suspicious about its origins from the start.

The man who was detained and released Saturday night had his photo published by the Citizen personal safety app along with a $30,000 reward offer for the suspect’s arrest, but it turns out he was not the suspect police were looking for, according to multiple media reports.

Asked repeatedly about homeless encampments in the area Terrazas said that he had no knowledge of any near the fires ignition points, but that “there’s homeless encampments in brush areas in many areas of the city.”

“The LAFD Arson Counterterrorism Section, along with LAPD, have aggressively pursued all tips and all leads,” said the chief on Monday. “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,” said Terrazas.

As for the fire itself, an LAFD update said containment has increased to 32% while approximate acreage has decreased from 1,325 to 1158. That drop is due to better mapping of the blaze.

While Topanga residents were allowed back on on Monday evening, an evacuation order is still in place for some Pacific Palisades residents. This is currently the active flank of the fire, according to the LAFD update.

Topanga Canyon Boulevard was reopened to the public at 1 p.m. Tuesday, when officials also lifted an evacuation warning 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.

There were eight helicopters and three water tenders on Tuesday morning making drops on areas that are difficult to access from the ground. Hand crews are working to expand containment lines. That’s where firefighters made “significant progress” overnight, gaining better access to some remote areas in order to mop up.

PREVIOUSLY, Monday, 5:20 p.m.: Emergency officials late Monday lifted all evacuation orders related to the Palisades Fire in Los Angeles.

“As a result of successful firefighting efforts, all evacuation orders in Topanga will be lifted at 6pm,” read a tweet from the LAFD public information officer. “Topanga Canyon Blvd. will be open to residents only, starting at 6pm. Be prepared to show ID or Topanga access card. Thank you for your patience.”

And there was more good news.

Another tweet from the PIO said the blaze is now 23% contained, while firefighters were able to hold the number of acres scorched to 1,325. That’s a minor miracle given how quickly the blaze spread over the weekend.

“This has been a team effort across multiple agencies, both in the air and on the ground,” wrote the PIO.

One thing that helped with the team effort: clear skies. Morning air operations, specifically with fixed-wing aircraft, had been hampered because of low cloud cover — it is only May, after all. But the ceiling lifted late morning and the air attack began again.

PREVIOUSLY, Monday, 10:20 a.m.: On Monday morning, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti led a morning press briefing on what’s being called the Palisades Fire with news that officials had arrested one person suspected of starting the 1,000-acre-plus blaze.

“That person is in custody, but we’re not releasing anything more now because of the pending investigation,” Garcetti announced, after also saying that the suspect is “getting medical attention.”

Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas thanked the public for their help saying that the cause of the fire “is labeled suspicious.” LAPD, he continued, has “aggressively pursued all tips. And we want to think the community to provide us those tips.”

More detail: Chief Terrazas clarified that the man in custody is the second person detained. “We did retain one person and release them,” on Saturday, he said. That person, he continued, is no longer a suspect. “The second person was arrested yesterday at 2:30 pm. We feel we have the right person.”

He also revealed that the suspect was male, had only minor injuries, and was being treated for smoke inhalation.

There had been speculation over the weekend that the suspect, who had not been caught at that time, was hiding in the chaos near the fire to escape capture. Smoke inhalation would be consistent with that theory.

One complicating factor for firefighters and police: hikers. A photo posted on social media over the weekend showed multiple people on a ridge near the fire (bottom left in image below) placing them and any firefighters who might need to rescue them in danger.

Terrazas made a plea: “No hikers. Please no hikers while we’re fighting fire.” See photo

The LAFD chief said the fact that the fire had “multiple points of ignition,” which is unusual, made investigators suspicious about its origins from the start.

Asked repeatedly about homeless encampments in the area Terrazas said that he had no knowledge of any near the fires ignition points, but that “there’s homeless encampments in brush areas in many areas of the city.”

“Much of the vegetation in these canyons has not seen significant fire in over 50 years,” he said, which means there is a significant fuel source for the blaze. Even so, Terrazas expressed surprise that the blaze exploded over the weekend, despite multiple mitigating factors.

“We normally don’t have this type, this size of fire in May. I think we really need to think of fire season as year ’round now,” he said. What’s more said the chief, “It is raining out here and the fire is still burning, and that is unusual. That tells you that the drought, the years that have gone by since the last fire, have changed the equation.”

The size of the fire is still officially listed at 1,325 acres, but it has “grown some” since that estimate, said Mayor Garcetti. An updated figure on the fire’s size will be released later today, he announced. “We are expecting that we’ll be fighting this for at least a couple more days,” said the mayor.

Other important details:

-Containment is still listed at zero percent.

-No official evacuation orders have been issued for the city of Los Angeles, although an evacuation warning was issued on Sunday for all homes north of Chastain Parkway in the 1500 block to Calle Del Cielo.

-No homes have been lost or damaged.

-540 firefighting personnel have been assigned to the scene

-One firefighter suffered a minor eye injury.

PREVIOUSLY on Saturday: A Pacific Palisades brush fire left 750 acres scorched on Saturday, forcing evacuations in multiple areas.

Thus far, an evacuation has been ordered for residents east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, between the Community House and View Ridge Road. The area north of Entrada, south of Oakwood Drive and east of the Henry Ridge Motorway is also under mandatory evacuation.

Ignited on Friday around 10 p.m., near Michael Lane and Palisades Court, the fire is suspected to be the product of arson. It was exacerbated by wind gusts coming from the south-southwest direction at 15-22 mph, per the National Weather Service.

Topanga Canyon Boulevard is currently closed, between Mulholland Drive and the PCH, due to firefighting activity. Air tankers, however, have been suspended for the night, due to poor visibility.

As of the 7 o’clock hour, there is zero containment of the fire, per the LAFD’s Margaret Stewart, who noted that the terrain involved is steep and extremely difficult to navigate. The Los Angeles Fire Department recommends that large animals be evacuated to Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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