A homeless man who allegedly set a brush fire that has charred at least 3,900 acres and forced evacuations of some homes last week in Azusa was charged Tuesday with two felony arson counts.
Osmin Palencia, who lives in a tent near the Mountain Cave community, allegedly started the blaze during an argument Thursday, according to prosecutors.
The 36-year-old man is set to be arraigned Sept. 11 in a West Covina courtroom on one count each of arson during a state of emergency and arson of a structure or forest, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Palencia — who allegedly has a prior conviction from 2015 for dissuading a witness — surrendered to authorities on Sunday. He has remained behind bars since then, jail records show.
He could face up to 23 years in state prison if convicted as charged, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
The Ranch 2 Fire grew to 3,900 acres Tuesday morning and was still 19% contained. Dangerously hot and dry weather over the fire was forecast for the next few days, with an excessive heat warning extended through Thursday.
“Fuels and rugged steep terrain in the fire area are the main cause for upslope runs,” the U.S. Forest Service said. “Active fire behavior continues after the afternoon inversion lift. Fuels are critically dry.”
The fire made it to Pine Mountain Peak, but had not damaged radio repeaters located on the peak as of 8 a.m. Tuesday, the Forest Service said. There were 456 firefighters assigned to the blaze, which erupted in a homeless encampment Thursday.
No structures were damaged, and no injuries were reported.
All earlier evacuations orders have been lifted, but the following road closures remain in effect:
— San Gabriel Canyon Road/Highway 39: closed at Northbound Hwy 39 at Sierra Madre Avenue (southbound Highway 39 is closed at East Fork Road);
— Glendora Mountain Road: closed from Big Dalton to East Fork;
— Glendora Ridge Road: closed from Glendora Mountain Road to Mt. Baldy Road; and
— Santa Anita Canyon Road: closed from Arno Drive to Chantry Flats Road.
The Angeles National Forest changed its Forest Fire Danger Level from very high to extreme and moved into full fire-restriction mode, including prohibiting campfires in developed sites. Cooking stoves, lanterns and similar devices that use propane, white gas or similar fuels are prohibited.
The fire was reported about 2:45 p.m. Thursday near North San Gabriel Canyon Road and North Ranch Road, according to the Azusa Police Department and Los Angeles County Fire Department, which called in a second-alarm response.
A witness who lives in a riverbed near Mountain Cove said an argument between two homeless men sparked the fire, which came dangerously close to homes.
“There were two gentlemen in the back (of a homeless encampment) fighting and they were arguing over a bike and one guy said he’d burn the other guy out, and things got escalated to where the fire started,” evacuee Jimmy Pockets told NBC4. “Ran over to try to put it out, but it just took off so quick.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency Tuesday to help ensure resources to combat multiple fires burning across the state.
“We are deploying every resource available to keep communities safe as California battles fires across the state during these extreme conditions,” Newsom said. “California and its federal and local partners are working in lockstep to meet the challenge and remain vigilant in the face of continued dangerous weather conditions.”