Arson suspect sought as brush fire near LA’s exclusive Pacific Palisades forces evacuations

Los Angeles County authorities looked Sunday for a potential arsonist who might have set off a brush fire that forced the mandatory evacuation of about 1,000 people in the exclusive Pacific Palisades area near Topanga Canyon.

Cool and wet conditions overnight helped prevent the Palisades Fire from spreading beyond the 750 acres it had reached Saturday, but the LA Fire Department said in an update Sunday morning that warming weather and afternoon winds may push the blaze northwest – threatening homes – as it rips through dense mountain vegetation that “is very dry and has not burned in 50+ years.’’

The update said the cause of the fire was “suspicious” and under investigation.

LAFD spokesperson Margaret Stewart said a possible arson suspect was seen Saturday but eluded a search by the Sheriff’s Department.

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As huge plumes of smoke rose over the mountains, firefighters relied mostly on air drops to battle the blaze – which started late Friday night and was zero contained by 10:30 a.m. Sunday – because of the difficulty in reaching the steep, rugged terrain.

“Dozers are working to improve access for firefighters on the ground, but much of the area remains inaccessible,” Stewart said. “This is primarily an air-based operation with both fixed-wing and rotary (helicopters) working together.”

By late morning, the fire had stretched to 835 acres, according to a tweet by the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which said, “Crews are working flare-ups toward the leading edge of the fire.”

A firefighting helicopter drops water onto a brush fire in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles on May 15, 2021.

Air quality officials issued a smoke advisory through at least Sunday afternoon because of the smoke billowing near homes in the area and advised those exposed to stay indoors.

Regardless of what caused the Palisades Fire, California officials and residents are bracing for a harsh 2021 fire season after a second consecutive winter of below-average precipitation left most of the state in drought conditions and millions of acres of terrain ready to burn.

“The fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year,” Cal Fire, the state’s wildfire prevention and fighting agency, says on its website, pointing to climate change as a major reason. “The length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierra and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of the forest fires across the state.”

The 2020 fire season set records with nearly 10,000 blazes and 4.25 million acres burned – more than 4% of the state’s territory – damaging or destroying almost 10,500 structures.

Contributing: Palm Springs Desert Sun

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