Los Angeles Wildfire Containment Grows as Officials Name Arson Suspect

Fire crews have made significant progress assaulting the nearly 1,200-acre blaze from both the ground and air as evacuation orders have been lifted.

A firefighting helicopter drops water onto a brush fire scorching at least 100 acres in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles on Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A wildfire raging in a brush-filled, canyon community west of Los Angeles is closer to full containment Wednesday as fire crews battle the flames and as LA County prosecutors file charges against a man accused of setting the blaze.

The wildfire broke out Friday in the Santa Monica Mountains west of Los Angeles and exploded the following day, charring at least 1,300 acres and sending plumes of smoke and ash into the sky as thousands of residents fled their homes.

The blaze — dubbed the Palisades Fire by officials — is actively burning in the Topanga Canyon area, where the flames are being attacked by ground crews and by air tankers dropping fire retardants on the burn area. 

No residents have been reported injured and no structures have been harmed by the blaze. One firefighter battling the fire sustained a minor injury.

The LA County District Attorney’s office Tuesday charged Ramon Santos Rodriguez, 48, with two counts of arson in connection with the wildfire.

A Los Angeles Police Department helicopter pilot observed Rodriguez setting multiple fires near the burn area on Saturday, according to officials. 

After arson investigators determined that the fire was started by Rodriguez — who was arrested Sunday and treated for smoke inhalation that day — they presented their findings to prosecutors to consider felony charges.

According to officials, Rodriguez is homeless.

LA City Councilman Joe Buscaino, a candidate for mayor in 2022, said in a statement Rodriguez’s arrest demonstrates the danger of homeless encampments setting up near communities, even though no evidence shows Rodriguez lived in an encampment.

“Our homelessness crisis is destroying neighborhoods and endangering the lives of the housed and unhoused,” Buscaino said. “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.”

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose term ends in 2022, echoed the sentiment on Twitter.

“I can only sit on the sidelines for so long, waiting patiently for the city and county to do something about homelessness,” Villanueva wrote in a tweet Tuesday. “It’s time to compassionately reclaim and regulate public space for the community.”

LA City Councilman Mike Bonin criticized his colleagues’ approach, saying in a statement Rodriguez’s current status as unhoused shouldn’t be described as being tied to the fire.

“Arson is a crime committed by an individual, and not by a person’s housing status,” Bonin said. “Suggesting a suspect’s housing status is a contributing factor to the crime is irresponsible, and implies other people experiencing homelessness are inherently more dangerous or more likely to commit arson than housed people. Exploiting this incident to stoke anti-homeless sentiment is irresponsible and harmful.”

Law enforcement had briefly detained another man, Devin Hilton, suspected of setting the fire but released him after evidence couldn’t tie him to the blaze. 

Users of the information-sharing app Citizen had mistakenly accused Hilton of starting the blaze and the company offered a $30,000 reward for information that led to his arrest. 

The company issued a statement apologizing for their actions and for not coordinating with law enforcement.

Los Angeles Fire Department spokesperson Margaret Stewart said in a statement Wednesday containment of the Palisades Fire is at 57% as fire crews continue their assault on the wildfire.

“Firefighters continue to make significant progress on this fire,” Stewart said. “Containment lines have grown and firefighters were able to access remote areas of the fire to mop-up hot spots. Helicopters will continue to drop water on the remote areas of the fire that are difficult to access by ground. Hand crews will continue to increase containment lines throughout the day.”

The LA County Fire Department said the total acreage charred so far is 1,158.

The recent progress made by fire crews led officials to announce the lifting of all evacuation orders in the Topanga area. Residents need to show identification or a special Topanga access card to return to their property.

Improved weather and cloud conditions Tuesday allowed for air tankers to join the battle against the wildfire, unlocking a major firefighting tool for crews on the ground.

The region has seen very little rainfall in recent months and dense, dry brush areas have only become more parched.

Officials said some sections of the Palisades Fire area haven’t burned in over 50 years. That buildup of fuel creates higher risk for wildfires.

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