L.A. STORIES -Essential California 5.17.2021: A Palisades brush fire grows

Essential California

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, May 17. I’m Melissa Gomez, and I’m writing from Los Angeles. I usually write about education and the youth, but this week I’ll be catching you up with the latest news.

Even as the sky remained mostly gray on Sunday, fire season appeared to inch closer this year.

A brush fire that broke out in Topanga Canyon on Friday had displaced 1,000 people by Sunday, officials reported. By mid-afternoon, the Palisades fire had grown to 1,325 acres, with 0% contained. Weather conditions appeared favorable, with cool weather and winds that weren’t expected to contribute to the fire’s growth, my colleague Alex Wigglesworth reported.

Still, the fire thrived off of old and dry vegetation that had not burned in more than 50 years, authorities said. The cause of the fire is still under investigation — it started near Topanga State Park around 10 p.m. on Friday, the Los Angeles Fire Department said, adding that it is deemed a “suspicious start.”

Fire officials said Sunday evening that they had “aggressively tracked down any and all potential leads” and were questioning a possible arson suspect. Another who had been detained earlier had been released, they said.

Those ordered to evacuate on Saturday included residents living east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard between the Topanga Community Center and Viewridge Road, and those residing north of Entrada Road, south of Oakwood Drive and east of Henry Ridge Mountain Way. My colleague Laura Newberry put together a helpful guide that outlines what areas have been evacuated, road closures and shelters. The Times has a live map for readers to track the fire in real time.

By Sunday evening, more residents were being forced or preparing to evacuate. Another evacuation warning was issued for residents of the Pacific Palisades Highlands neighborhood, including resident Jessica Rogers, president of the Pacific Palisades Residents Assn.

“If you look out any window or if you step outside, all you see is just billowing smoke everywhere,” Rogers said.

“This is not normal, to have a big fire like this in May,” said Scott Ferguson, board chair of the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness. “This is the type of thing we’d usually be doing in November.”

The fire comes during what some researchers say is the start of California’s fire season, which they believe has grown longer, beginning in May instead of June and peaking in August instead of July. Whether California experiences an intense fire season will come down to several factors. So far, a few that do not work in our favor: a weak rainy season and dry vegetation and soil.

What happens next for the state will depend on other contributing factors, human behavior and weather events. Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, so did wildfires, which burned more than 4 million acres, doubling the state’s previous record.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

It was a story prime for Hollywood: Years ago, a janitor at Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant pitched and created Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, considered (by me) to be one of the greatest snacks of all time. But the story is false. My colleague Sam Dean interviewed more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees, checked records, and spoke directly with Frito-Lay officials, who said Richard Montañez, the former janitor who rose the ranks to become an executive at the company, played no part in creating the snack. (This story is a subscriber exclusive.) Los Angeles Times

And don’t forget: Today is the deadline to file your taxes. So, if you put them off until the very last minute, here’s a guide on everything you need to know this year. Los Angeles Times


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Thousands of protesters gathered to march in support of Palestinians. The event marked the 73rd anniversary of the “nakba,” or catastrophe, a reference to Palestinians’ displacement in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Today, a fourth war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rages on. Los Angeles Times

She’s trying to preserve one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles County after decades of neglect and mismanagement. Members of Celestina Bishop’s family are buried at the Woodlawn Memorial Park in Compton, along with more than 900 veterans, including 17 unidentified Civil War soldiers from the Union Army. Los Angeles Times

Classic low-riders parade down Van Nuys Boulevard on April 17. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)


The third wave of lowriding is here. You can watch lowriders in all their glory cruising down Van Nuys Boulevard once a month. The movement experienced a sort of revival during the pandemic. Los Angeles Times

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Indian Americans balance hope and despair. As conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic improve in the U.S., Indian Americans in California celebrate the falling infection rate, but also worry as family and friends in their homeland face one of the world’s worst outbreaks. Los Angeles Times

The California Teachers Assn. has outspent other lobbying groups this year. The state’s largest teachers union assumed a role as a top influencer as it sought to push teachers to the front of the line for COVID-19 vaccines and resisted efforts to force a return to the classroom. Bay Area News Group

Immigrants lacking legal status in California have exhausted their savings during the pandemic. Advocates are urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to establish a financial safety net to aid immigrant workers who lost work during the pandemic at a time when the state is flush with funds. The Sacramento Bee


Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón wants to reframe how the criminal justice system views crime victims. They are not just those targeted by criminals, Gascón says, but also include defendants in communities of color who have been historically mistreated by the criminal justice system. Los Angeles Times

Several police departments across the state are following an eerie recipe after police shootings. Consulting firms are working with departments to craft narratives through video messages, a move some civil rights attorneys say effectively spins the story in their favor and keeps body camera footage out of the public eye. Bay Area News Group

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They called him “crazy.” But he’s winning. Eco-warrior Duncan McFetridge has spent three decades fighting to preserve San Diego’s wildlands, including going as far as mortgaging his home to pay for lawsuits against development. Now, an incoming wave of civic leaders is backing the climate activist’s ideas. San Diego Union-Tribune

A proposed housing project in Lincoln Heights near a plot of land once identified as toxic is drawing concern about contamination and gentrification. Lincoln Heights residents say they don’t want to stop the project — they just want reassurance that proper environmental assessments and testing are completed. Los Angeles Times


AT&T Inc. is set to announce a joint venture with Discovery, a move that will reshape Hollywood. The telecommunications company will spin off its entertainment assets with the cable programming company, according to people familiar with the matter. Los Angeles Times

There’s something special about Minh Phan’s Phenakite, “an ambitious and quietly radical fine-dining project conceived in the eye of the pandemic’s storm,” food critic Bill Addison says. Phenakite is The Times’ Restaurant of the Year. Los Angeles Times


Guelaguetza, a longtime Oaxacan restaurant with some of the best mole around, is the 2021 winner of the Gold Award. The award, named after Jonathan Gold, is given to a local chef or restaurant “with the idea of honoring culinary excellence and expanding the notion of what Southern California cooking might be.” Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles: cloudy, 64. San Diego: also cloudy, 66. San Francisco: cloudy, 57 . San Jose: sunny, 68. Fresno: also sunny, 86. Sacramento: a lil’ cloudy, 79.


This week’s birthdays for those who made a mark in California:

Actress-comedian Tina Fey (May 18, 1970), Homeboy Industries founder Father Gregory Boyle (May 19, 1954), actor Mr. T (May 21, 1952), songwriter Bernie Taupin (May 22, 1950).

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to [email protected].

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