Police: Wildfires caused by arsonist | August 10, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 10, 2012

Police: Wildfires caused by arsonist

Suspicious man detained, released; investigation continues

by Sue Dremann and Jocelyn Dong

An arsonist is suspected of setting five wildfires that burned 4 acres of Pearson Arastradero Preserve in the Palo Alto hills Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 8, sending up plumes of white smoke that could be seen for miles and requiring both helicopter and aircraft to quell the blaze.

Palo Alto police officers detained a man walking in the area of the fires after a passing bicyclist reported him to a firefighter, the police stated in a press release Thursday. The man was released pending further investigation into the cause of the fire, but police and fire officials have determined that "five small fires in the same immediate area had been intentionally set."

Detectives Thursday said they would like the bicyclist to contact the department to give a more detailed statement.

The fires were reported in the grasslands of the wooded preserve west of Interstate 280 at 4:08 p.m. and came within about 200 feet of a horse ranch on the adjacent Stanford University campus. No structures were threatened, and no one was injured.

Madeleine Todd, the owner of three horses at Portola Pastures, reported the fire after she noticed smoke and flames from four separate blazes, she said.

Todd said she was checking on her horses at the time. The fire was near the parking lot of Palo Alto University on Arastradero Road, she said.

Todd said she saw three, equally spaced fires near the road. A fourth, a larger blaze, was farther in the grass up a hill near a trail.

When she called in the fire, people were still biking and jogging along the road. The fires had probably been burning for 10 to 15 minutes, she said.

"It was so big by the time the fire trucks got here, there was lots of smoke and about 15-foot flames. It took down a couple of trees," she said.

She and Portola Pastures manager Jose Ruelas were on alert in case they needed to move the 15 or 20 horses out of the upper pasture, she said. Ruelas said Portola Pastures shelters about 155 horses.

Firefighters from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Woodside, Coastside in Half Moon Bay, Santa Clara County and Cal Fire, plus aircraft that dumped fire retardant and a helicopter that dropped water, swooped down on the blaze, according to Cal Fire.

Police blocked traffic along Arastradero Road from Page Mill to Alpine roads and closed the preserve. Only horse owners were allowed to check on their animals.

Crews had the fire contained by 6 p.m. and remained into the evening to ensure the hot spots did not flare.

The open-space preserve is open, with all hiking trails available, according to the police statement.

Police are asking anyone with information about the fires to contact the department at 650-329-2413. Anonymous tips can be emailed to paloalto@tipnow.org or sent via text message or voicemail to 650-383-8984.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.


Posted by me, a resident of another community
on Aug 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm

Good job PAFD Maybe now they wont close that station. We need our firefighters

Posted by Another-Suspicious-Wildfire, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm

> We need our firefighters

And this posted by someone from "another community".

Will be interesting to see if the Fire Department releases any information about the origin of this fire.

Posted by janet, a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm

There have been multiple arsons over the years along there. Several years ago there was a huge fire in which many horses died. That fire was big because of all the eucalyptus trees, many of which still exist. I hope they manage to get it under control and that no people or animals are hurt.

Posted by cars, a resident of Stanford
on Aug 8, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Most of these fires are caused by sparks or cigarettes from passing cars or motorcycles. The city should think about closing the road to motor vehicles on hot dry days.

Posted by Driver, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2012 at 5:51 pm

I bet it was arson. I drove by just as the firefighters were putting out multiple small fires along the trail leading to the upper parking lot. They hadn't even gotten to the big blaze up higher.

Speculation: someone started the big fire, then cruised down the trail starting a few more on the way to his car.

Great job to all the city FD's and Cal FIre for extinguishing this so quickly.

Posted by Too Close For Comfort, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Aug 8, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I watched the entire fire fighting effort from my home across the street from the fire, and it was extraordinarily great. Thank you, thank you, thank you to the many brave fire fighters from Palo Alto, Woodside, Coastside Fire, and Cal Fire for quickly defeating this fire. We were worried until we saw the string of planes and helicopters dropping fire retardant and water. The flames were soon reduced to benign white smoke, which is almost dissipated by now. We feel like we have the most prepared fire fighters in the state!

Posted by John, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2012 at 6:15 pm

I had my ranch torched by somebody...I don'tknow who, but it was a man-made event, according to the fire authorities. The esential issue is that dry oats and oaks and pines in the open lands, ARE going to burn, because they WILL be lit up. This is no longer the age where natural events spark a wildfire...it is usually arson, with a purpose. This forces us, who own wildlands, to employ bulldozers to create fire brakes...not a good thing for the ecology of the land. In fact, this arson is a domestic terrorism.

Very sad, but very true.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 8, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Like a natural balancing rock, there's always somebody who wants to push it over. Not much thought goes into where it lands.

Posted by John, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm

musical, your image is poetic, but it misses the point.

Small acreages, in California, are being hijacked by larger acreages, especially the drug cartels and grape growers, who want their lands expanded and protected. The drug cartels and the grape growers are part of the same cartel. My ranch didn't have any real problems until the last few years. Then I started get get strong-armed "offers" to sell my land. I have always left my land to wildlife, with no monetary reward. I politely refused the various offers to purchase my place. Then I got burnt out, twice ...quickly follwed by more offers to buy me out, by the drug guys and the grape guys.

Let's not be naive here, musical. The big losers are the wildlife. The winners are the cartels.

Posted by Jonathon, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Aug 8, 2012 at 9:00 pm

So lucky it was not in steeper terain or on a windy day....many homes could have been lost or worse. Great job by our fire departments. You are there when we need you!

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Thanks CDF!

Posted by John, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm

CalFire (used to be CDF) determines the causes of fires, near roads, according to the temperature and humidity. The vast majority of fires are purposely lit, not the result of sparks and tossed cigarettes, etc.

Some of such fires are the result of nihilists/sickos, but others have a specific purpose, to make gain.

Posted by Who???, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 8, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Marvin, CDF, California Division of Forestry has not used that name in years. They have been "Cal Fire" for quite some time, not sure if you are trying to dilute the credit due to our local FD's, but it was our local departments handling this incident, supported by Cal Fire not the other way around.

Posted by Angela Hey, a resident of Portola Valley
on Aug 8, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Listening to the firemen on firedispatch.com it reported a biker had seen someone walking away from the fire. Palo Alto police were investigating. So if anyone saw anything report to Palo Alto police.

I biked Arastradero shortly before it opened to cars. It was nice not to have to constantly look in the rear view mirror and work out when to slow down and when to accelerate so as to avoid being hit by a car on a blind corner. They should close the road on Sundays like they close Canada Road.

Warning to bikers - there is a crack in the road as you head from Portola Valley up the hill on Arastradero Road towards Los Altos - there are cones and a warning sign. Note to road repairers - get it fixed before it rains - I once broke an axle on my car with a pothole on Arastradero.

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 8, 2012 at 11:24 pm

In the Mercury News they quote a spokesperson from the department of forestry and fire protection, not palo alto. So I used CDF.

Posted by Johnny, a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2012 at 11:51 pm

Was this fire near the Day Worker Center?

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 9, 2012 at 1:17 am

Sorry for your troubles John. I saw your point but doubted there was such a purpose, or any purpose, in mind for this specific incident. If there was a motive, this arsonist might be easier to track down. Your expanded story is indeed scary, and I don't doubt it for a minute. One can almost connect the dots on that hidden $54 million and the imminent state park closures. The Park Preservation fund-raisers who pitched me this spring were confident that Henry Coe was about to turn into one huge cartel-owned pot farm. Modern plot for a remake of Shane.

Posted by Kate, a resident of Community Center
on Aug 9, 2012 at 7:09 am

What a great job PAFD did and also the other fire departments that came to help! I am so glad that there wasn't a fire station closed down at the time, cause who knows how large this fire could have gotten if they were not there to put it out! This is why you should not close fire stations!!!

Posted by Another-Suspicious-Wildfire, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2012 at 8:50 am

> I am so glad that there wasn't a fire station closed down at the
> time, cause who knows how large this fire could have gotten if
> they were not there to put it out!

Given the large number of units responding, having one more unit from Palo Alto coming from a fire station in the hills would not have affected the outcome of this fire.

Posted by Kate, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 9, 2012 at 9:13 am

Hey Another..
Would you really like to chance it?? How about you ask the people that were affected by the fire, I bet they are happy that there wasn't a station closed.

Posted by Response to Angela Hey, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

Arastradero Road between Alpine and Page Mill Roads crossed through several jurisdictions. If you can somehow figure out in which jurisdiction your identified pothole is located, then notify that jurisdiction's Public Works department about fixing it. It does appear you are talking about the eastbound direction.

Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 9, 2012 at 11:32 am

Hey Kate,

No, of course we don't want to chance it. Let's add 4-5 more fire stations in the hills. We need 50 more union fire employees spending most of their time sleeping and making $200K per year. Safety at any cost. No need to worry about budgets as long as union ff's are retiring as millionaires.

Thank goodness CalFire stepped in and took care of the fire yesterday.

Posted by Kate, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 9, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Hey Taxpayer,
No one is asking for 4-5 more stations, just to keep the ones that we have open. The firefighters are trying to keep us safe, from a fire and from any medical issue. They are doing a job that you don't want to do, if fact people run away from what they do and people expect them to help in the worst times. I think that most people forget what it means to use 911 and receive help from police or fire. I think people are missing the point, the firefighters did an amazing job and they deserve the recognition from people in the city.

I agree with you, I'm glad CalFire could assit. And I'm glad Menlo Park, Woodside, Santa Clara County Firefighters could help also.

Posted by mike, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I agree with Kate! The FF did a great job! They are great paramedics too. They saved my dad when he had a heart attack.

Posted by John, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm

musical, man-set fires, which most of them are, have reasons:

1. Firebug mental case
2. Disgruntled person/employee
3. An agent of financial/political gain.

I have no idea what this particular fire is about, but I would not rule out any of these possible motivations. Unless the investigators already have their guy(s), I would suggest an interview with the private landowners in the area, especially if they have been approached to buy/lease their land; or if they have spotted pot grows and called the police (or eradicated the plants themselves). There are also a number of insurance fraud schemes that are possible.

Posted by Debbie, a resident of another community
on Aug 9, 2012 at 2:05 pm

I could see the smoke and firefighters from my horse's stall, just across the street. Thank you, thank you, thank you to all of the firefighters for quickly bringing the fire under control. Thank you to the police who helped control the situation. No loss of buildings and no injuries. And, it did not spread across the street to the 155 horses.

Posted by JM, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 9, 2012 at 2:59 pm


Let's just keep the fire protection we have in place, no more no less.

Especially when the city council has so much fun spending our tax dollars on pet projects that "feel good" while abdicating their responsibility to keep the public safe and other boring responsibilities such as attending to infrastructure.

Every week it seems some new exciting project is approved that will cost millions. The most recently approved project to paint colored bike lanes around the city comes to mind. A really nice idea. But more essential than keeping our already largely cut fire department without further reductions?

Posted by Another-Suspicious-Wildfire, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2012 at 6:42 pm

> willing to chance it?

You bet! Given the size of that area in the Foothills, and the multiple jurisdictions involved—it would be better to create a Foothills Fire Protection District, and let one centralized Fire Department deal with the issues that ultimately involve all of the current jurisdictions more effectively than currently are being handled independently.

Using money to install monitoring equipment that would provide alerts to the primary, and secondary, fire suppression jurisdictions. Having the station up in the hills does reduce the response time for a fire nearby, but not any other units. If fires were detected more quickly, then the 5-8 minutes that are gained by having the station open would be offset. With a merged fire jurisdiction, it would have the authority to assess a small fee from each property owner, which the City of Palo Alto does not seem willing to do, or can not do.

Given a sufficiently well-designed Fire Suppression District, there might be sufficient funding to even keep aircraft in the air during periods of high fire likelihood. Currently, one small fire station can not provide much but a 5-8 minute response for the first unit on the scene.

> keep what we have in place?

What? You seem to be suggesting no further analysis of possibilities, no addition of high-tech fire detection/suppression equipment. This makes absolutely no sense at all!!!

Posted by Outside Observer, a resident of another community
on Aug 9, 2012 at 7:30 pm


Palo Alto has that fire camera up in the foothills:

Web Link

Did this play any role in the fire? Was it used by anyone? Either PAFD or citizens?

Posted by Another-Suspicious-Wildfire, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 9, 2012 at 7:44 pm

> Did this play any role in the fire?

Go point. The PAFD has real transparency problems, so there is little evidence that any fires have been detected by this equipment.

What's really needed is a camera system that operates in both the visible light domain, and the infrared domain. Additionally, the video streams need to be monitored via vision system software, which has the ability to alert both the 911 operator, as well as personnel within the FD.

All of this information needs to be logged, and published so that the public can better understand whether or not the FD is making use of this equipment.

Without the software monitoring these streams, a human would have to be watching the cameras.

Posted by Nora Charles, a resident of Stanford
on Aug 10, 2012 at 12:56 am

Great job, firefighters, as always. This is very disturbing, especially as there were so many horses near harm's way. I may be alone in this, but I firmly believe that arson should be a death penalty crime.

John of Midtown, I'm sorry about your experiences with your ranch.

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