Firefighters were making good progress fighting the 1,158-acre Palisades Fire on Tuesday, May 18, four days after the blaze was first reported burning late in the evening of Friday, May 14.
The fire is located in the Santa Monica Mountains between the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades and Topanga, and as of Tuesday was 32 percent contained and had not burned any homes in either neighborhood. One injury was reported—a firefighter suffered what was described by Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas as a “minor” eye injury.
Two of Topanga’s evacuation zones had been under mandatory evacuation from Saturday night until Monday evening, but residents were eventually permitted to return; Topanga Canyon Boulevard remained open only to local residents carrying IDs until 1 p.m. Tuesday.
The fire, which is reported burning in dry brush that has not seen a fire in decades—“as long as 75 years,” according to Terrazas—has been largely fuel-driven (as opposed to the Santa Ana wind-driven Woolsey Fire of 2018). But, unlike recent local blazes such as Woolsey, which began with a sparking utility wire, the fire was started by a suspected arsonist who was bent on starting a brush fire in the hills.
On Monday morning, Terrazas said during a press briefing at the staging area on Will Rogers State Beach that a suspect had been apprehended.
That suspect, later identified by LA City Fire Department (LAFD) Captain/PIO Erik Scott as Ramon Rodriguez Flores (who also goes by Ramon Santos Rodriguez), age 48, has been charged with violating section 451(c) of the California Penal Code of Arson of Forest Land. After being apprehended, Flores was transported to a nearby hospital to be treated for symptoms related to smoke inhalation.
“On Saturday morning, LAFD helicopter pilots observed an adult male moving around in the brush along a steep hillside near the fire,” a statement provided by Scott detailed. “The Los Angeles Police Department air patrol was dispatched to monitor the individual. Officers from the West Los Angeles Community Police Station kept watch on the ground while the air support division provided eyes in the sky. During an aerial observation, the tactical flight officer witnessed the individual ignite multiple additional fires.”
It would be another day before the suspect was detained.
“Arson investigators from LAFD requested the assistance of specialized deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Emergency Services Detail to locate and apprehend the alleged suspect within the rugged terrain,” the statement continued. “Deputies were lowered into the brush to begin their search. Because the fires were growing rapidly, deputies were forced to retreat.” The following morning, a private security guard noticed the suspect emerging from the brush and notified authorities; Flores, whose address is listed as “transient,” was detained soon thereafter, scarcely 36 hours after his alleged arson.
Unfortunately, the arrest was made more difficult by rapidly spreading misinformation, which was propagated by fringe news blogs, social media pages and even the Citizen App, a smartphone application that broadcasts police scanner data and encourages people to share footage of crimes, accidents and emergencies in real time by recording incidents on their cellphones. Citizen even broadcast a $30,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the (wrong) suspect. All of this misinformation pointed to one man, whom LA County officials had already determined was not the suspect.
Citizen App later said the reward was a “mistake.”
“We publicly posted the photo and offered a cash reward for information without formal coordination with the appropriate agencies,” the Citizen app’s response read. “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.”
Homeless-related fires have become a growing concern as homelesses-related issues continue to confound local elected officials and municipalities. However, according to reporting from LA Times City Hall reporter David Zahniser, Los Angeles City Council Member Mike Bonin rebuked a fellow councilman for emphasizing Flores’ status as an unhoused Angeleno.
“Arson is a crime committed by an individual, and not by a person’s housing status,” Bonin told Council Member Joe Buscaino, according to Zahniser. “Suggesting the suspect’s housing status is a contributing factor to crime is irresponsible … I cannot recall a public official or the media ever highlighting that a fire was set by, or a crime was committed by, a housed individual, although most are. This was not an encampment fire; it was arson.”