Palisades Fire Incident—’Crews Mopping Up’

Annemarie DonkinBy Annemarie Donkin      May 28, 2021

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As of Saturday, May 22, with 84 percent containment and acreage holding at 1,202, firefighters transitioned to Patrol Status, assuring there are no flare-ups. Meanwhile, an arson suspect is in custody. The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) announced there was no damage or loss of property; no deaths and only one minor injury to a firefighter. Topangans and Palisades residents could thank the heavens for overcast skies and a mild onshore breeze when a brush fire occurred around 10 p.m. on Friday, May 14, in the 1800 block of Michael Lane, Pacific Palisades. Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) helicopters initially reported difficulty spotting the fire due to the marine layer, but crews staged at a Topanga fire road in the vicinity of Santa Ynez Falls in the City of Los Angeles, spotted a glow. When the first responding engines from the LAFD arrived, fire crews encountered “multiple, separate, slow-moving fires in steep and remote terrain with thick understory dry and dead vegetation.” Immediately, the Department launched an all-out attack deploying dozens of engines, aircraft, bulldozers, water tenders and more than 100 firefighters. Throughout that first, long night, Topangans monitored the TCEP Emergency Status Updates (t-cep.org) to determine if the wind had changed and if there would be evacuations. On Friday night, there was also news of a possible arsonist and by Saturday morning, social media posted photos of the wrong guy on Citizen, Facebook, Twitter, and Nextdoor. Indeed, the LAFD reported that while they initially had the wrong suspect in custody, within 36 hours they had another suspect, one who had been seen on the steep hillsides setting the fires. LAFD was in a unified command with both Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) and Cal Fire until Wednesday morning, when LAFD was listed as the lead agency, with the other two organizations listed as assisting agencies. Evacuations in Topanga On Saturday, May 15, at about 7 p.m., the LACoFD issued an evacuation order to about 1,000 residents in Topanga’s Zones 4 and 6. This included all inhabitants east of Topanga Canyon, north of Entrada, south of Oakwood, and east of Henry Ridge between the Community Center and Viewridge. On Monday morning, Topanga Canyon Blvd. was closed to non-residents northbound from PCH and southbound from Mulholland Drive. (Residents needed to present a photo ID with a Topanga address in order to pass the roadblock). Also, on Monday, Topanga Elementary Charter School was closed for in-person classes and remained closed the following week. During the evacuation, large animal evacuations were set up at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and small animals could be taken to the Agoura Animal Care Center. Arsonist Caught on Saturday Just after midnight Friday, 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 only preliminary information and returned the next day. On Saturday morning, LAFD helicopter pilots observed an adult male moving around in the brush along a steep hillside near the fire. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) 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. 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. Deputies were lowered into the brush to begin their search and caught the suspect. Ramon Santos Rodriguez, a 48-year-old transient was charged Tuesday in connection with the blaze. According to the LAFD, he faces one felony count each of arson of a structure or forest and arson during a state of emergency. Ralph Terrazas, director of the Los Angeles Fire Department, said at a press conference on Monday, May 17, that the suspect had been treated for smoke inhalation. According to news reports, Rodriguez was booked for arson at the Los Angeles County Jail, where he is being held on $75,000 bail. A Unified Command Los Angeles County and city firefighting units received help from neighboring Ventura County Fire Department, Malibu Search and Rescue, and Orange County Fire Authority, as well as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Ultimately, it would take more than one week, a unified command of 36 engines, five hand crews, two dozers, two water tenders, three helicopters, and 283 crew members to wrap up the Palisades Fire Incident. Simon T, benefactor of 69 Bravo, reported that the helispot was activated literally minutes after the Palisades fire started at 9:35 p.m. and remained active and manned for more than three days. During that time, fire helicopters pulled nearly 85,000 gallons from the helistop to prevent the fire from burning Topanga and the Palisades. He also reported that Los Angeles County Fire also provided a Helitender (Fuel Truck) to supply all helicopters from the three Fire Departments with fuel thus saving valuable time of having to go back to Van Nuys, Whiteman, or Camarillo airports to refuel. Chinooks on the Way June 15! If you wondered why the Chinook helicopters were not used in this fire, it’s because they will not come on line until June 15 when Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange Counties will each receive the loan of the world’s largest firefighting helicopter, the highly modified CH-47 Chinook, that can drop a payload of 3,000 gallons of water or retardant in a single pass. To accommodate the larger helitanker, the four 6000-gallon rubber/vinyl “pumpkins” have been upgraded to 8,000-gallon metal pumpkins. This will increase the immediate “static” capacity of the pumpkins from 24,000 gallons to 36,000 gallons, a 50 percent increase. They are scheduled to be activated at 69 Bravo by May 30. According to Los Angeles County Fire Chief Drew Smith, the Chinooks are a “game changer.” Mopping Up While mopping up the Palisades Fire incident, the LAFD is collaborating with California State Parks and environmental agencies to restore the fire roads and trails in Topanga State Park. Meanwhile, the LAFD requests that all hikers and bicyclists please stay off trails near the burn area. Brian Humphrey, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said everyone can thank the hardworking firefighters of the LAFD and cooperating agencies: Los Angeles County Fire; the Sheriff’s Department; the LAPD, California State Parks, and the California Conservation Corps. “There were no structures burned or damaged, just one firefighter suffered a minor eye injury,” Humphrey said. He also strongly advised residents in the area to have a plan for evacuation. “While you sit down and have coffee, figure out where you are going to go in case of a wildfire,” he said. “Have a plan or follow the recommendations of “Ready! Set! Go!” Information on “Ready! Set! Go!” is available online at fire.lacounty.gov.
Annemarie Donkin

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May 28, 2021

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