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| Friday, Aug 20, 2021
A Los Angeles County Firefighter walks past a wall of fire at the Tick Fire in Canyon Country. Cory Rubin/The Signal
 

A barbecue and high winds are believed to have accidentally ignited the 2019 Tick Fire that burned thousands of acres, forced the mass evacuation of Santa Clarita Valley residents and destroyed multiple homes, Fire Department officials said this week.

In a statement sent to The Signal, Los Angeles County Fire Department Assistant Fire Chief Anderson Mackey confirmed a rumor that had been circulating since the 2019 disaster burned 4,615 acres, destroyed 22 buildings, damaged 27 others and resulted in the evacuation of roughly 40,000 Santa Clarita Valley residents.

“The 2019 Tick Fire was determined to be accidental,” said Mackey, “caused by outdoor cooking during a planned power outage.”

The news comes nearly two years after the fire impacted the lives of tens of thousands of local residents and irrevocably altered the lives of a few dozen others.

Flames approach a community near Grand Canyon Road in Canyon Country as a water dropping helicopter passes over on Thursday, October 25, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

Those who lost their homes in the fire — some of whom are still trying to rebuild — said on Wednesday they had heard the rumor that a man deciding to barbecue during Santa Ana winds amid a planned electrical power shutoff — a program designed to prevent brush fires — had ignited the brush behind his house. But this week was the first time they had heard it confirmed.

“The fact that somebody could be that reckless as to … you know … we’ve been through a lot,” said Ryan Palos, whose Sequoia Drive house was destroyed by the fire 21 months ago and whose family will not move into their reconstructed home until this fall. “This opens up the wounds again, just to find out that somebody did something this careless.”

Tick Canyon Road

The drive down the dirt path of the 31600 block of Tick Canyon Road is quiet.

The stillness surrounding the handful of homes found off the beaten path is only broken by the cawing of a bird, the occasional bark of a dog or the bleat of a single goat.

If you didn’t see the footage of people fleeing from their flame-licked neighborhoods in Mint Canyon, the photos of worried homeowners waiting to bypass the blockade on Sand Canyon Road, or any of the round-the-clock media coverage from Oct. 24 to Oct. 31, 2019, you might never realize how loud Tick Canyon can be.

The Tick Canyon Road turnoff in Agua Dulce. August 18, 2021. Dan Watson/The Signal

A fenced driveway in the fire area of of Tick Canyon Road in Agua Dulce. 081821. Dan Watson/The Signal
UNCONFIRMED GROUND ZERO OF TICK FIRE
31656 Tick Canyon Road in Agua Dulce. 081821. Dan Watson/The Signal

But at the flashpoint there remain clues: blackened sticks intertwine with green brush, metal exteriors and bare hillsides showing scars, charred fence posts still lay thrown on the ground, and curated palm trees that would normally look misplaced in the valley-desert landscape appearing even stranger when damaged, burned and wilted.

View of a tree and water tank in the fire area from Tick Canyon Road in Agua Dulce. 081821. Dan Watson/The Signal

View of the fire area from Tick Canyon Road in Agua Dulce. 081821. Dan Watson/The Signal

At approximately 1:40 p.m. that Thursday, first responders were called to the 31600 block of Tick Canyon Road. While evidence remains at the scene that they did make an appearance, a symphonic harmony of factors — dry conditions, even dryer vegetation, the Santa Ana winds and flames being able to move quickly uphill — show the spread of the fire had grown beyond their immediate control.

The #TickFire would destroy the residence at the origin, spread to faraway neighborhoods, and people around the state, country and world watched as the secluded hamlet of homes at the base of a small canyon eventually crash-landed on a city’s doorstep.

Who’s Responsible?

Attempts by The Signal to speak to the resident believed to have lit the barbecue were left unanswered as of the publication of this article. Knocking on doors to speak with his neighbors on Tick Canyon Road proved unsuccessful, as well.

Previous attempts to procure a report stating the cause for the fire from the agencies that are most directly connected to the fire — Cal Fire and the L.A. County Fire Department — were left unanswered, tangled in bureaucracy since the fall of 2019, or hindered by COVID-19 administrative changes. Ultimately, in 2021, officials said that a document that would detail the cause of the fire, known as the After-Action Report, was not generated for the Tick Fire, and a statement was given.

In 2020, Capt. Scott Crosby at the L.A. County Fire Department Arson Investigation unit confirmed to The Signal that the person who accidentally started the fire would not be charged with arson and the matter was not a part of a criminal investigation.

As of the publication of this article, the person believed to have started the fire has not been criminally charged, and searches of federal and county civil lawsuit databases showed no complaints filed against him.

A house on the 29500 block of Sequoia Road in Canyon Country burns during the Tick Fire early Friday morning. Cory Rubin/The Signal

Ryan, left. and Ann Palos walk in the back yard as construction continues using foam insulated concrete forms to rebuild their fire-safe house in Canyon Country on Friday, 052121. Dan Watson/The Signal

Southern California Edison officials this week responded to the confirmation that a man had started a brush fire because he wanted to cook, despite his electricity being out during a public safety power shut-off — a program in which Edison officials perform targeted power shut-offs for high-risk areas during fire-enabling weather patterns.

“Our thoughts are with those who suffered losses due to the Tick Fire,” said Reggie Kumar, a spokesman for SoCal Edison. “At Southern California Edison, the safety of our employees, customers and communities is our No. 1 priority and we work to keep them safe in many ways.”

Kumar added that the PSPS program is a last-resort measure for the power company, and is designed to reduce the risk of wildfires.

“We continue to work to reduce the need for these outages to ease the burden on our customers. However, it will continue to be a tool we use when necessary to keep communities safe,” said Kumar.

The spokesman said SoCal Edison has been working toward reducing the number of local PSPS implementations, adding that there will be a 90% reduction in PSPS outages in Santa Clarita, assuming weather conditions are similar to last year.

Kumar declined to comment on how many fires are started by people making similar decisions to the one in Tick Canyon during PSPS events and referred back to his previous comments.

Matthew Green, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, said he watched as the Tick Fire consumed his home, and thought the Fire Department and SoCal Edison should be held accountable for their role and response to the blaze.

“I think it’s ridiculous that it’s taken this long to find out the cause,” said Green. “And I feel like the power company has done nothing since the fire to prevent these things from happening again.”

“And yes, this is the first time we heard it confirmed but we heard the story after the fire,” Green added. “So, any of us that got affected by the fire have no way of holding them accountable because of the time that has lapsed.”

Fire Officials Confirm Tick Fire Caused By Barbecue, Considered Accidental

Ventura County firefighters hose down the remains of a house at the end of Sugar Loaf Court in Canyon Country during the Tick Fire Friday morning. Cory Rubin/The Signal

Fire Officials Confirm Tick Fire Caused By Barbecue, Considered Accidental

Matthew Green searches the debris for salvageable items in the living room of his home on Saturday that burned in the Tick Fire in Canyon Country last month. Dan Watson/The Signal

Green’s wife had expressed, while walking the remnants of her home in November 2019, how worried she was about the trauma they had both experienced in losing their home, but added that they were a young couple and could rebuild. On Thursday, her husband said they had finished the framing on their home, but the projected move-in date was still four months out.

Much like Green, other victims of the fire said the confirmation on Wednesday was the first time they had the story confirmed for them, and while they expressed their frustration, some also said they wished to move forward with their lives.

“We didn’t get anything until (The Signal) called today about what the final outcome was,” Amy Lamon, whose family’s home off Husk Avenue in Baker Canyon was destroyed by the Tick Fire, said on Wednesday. “I don’t want to waste too much time on it. If it was deemed an accident then it’s an accident, right?”

Amy Lamon said her family had heard the rumor in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and said a spirit of understanding was not their immediate reaction.

“Our first thought was, ‘What an idiot to do that,’” said Lamon. “Everyone knows you don’t start any type of fire with the winds going. And then, and then, we, you know, we also kind of thought, ‘Well, you know, it’s his right … to cook to feed himself.’”

“I try and think like what if that were one of my teenagers or something, like there’s a breeze outside and they want to have the bonfire and then something happens,” Lamon added. “It’s just an unfortunate accident.”

The Palos family, who lost their Sequoia Drive home, said they had fled with their children in the middle of an almost sleepless night. The razing of their home was played on televisions across the country and they still have not been able to move back into their new home as construction continues.

Their additional living expense given to them by their insurance ran out a few weeks ago, and they had to leave the rental property they had temporarily called home. They now live in a VRBO, with most of their property in storage units, while they pay for two mortgages and a construction loan.

Fire Officials Confirm Tick Fire Caused By Barbecue, Considered Accidental

The Lamon family’s 10-year residence on Husk Avenue in Baker Canyon was destroyed during the Tick Fire. Emily Alvarenga/The Signal

Fire Officials Confirm Tick Fire Caused By Barbecue, Considered Accidental

David Lamon looks at his burnt down home on Husk Avenue in Baker Canyon that was destroyed during the Tick Fire. Emily Alvarenga/The Signal

“People usually have time to do these renovations and make improvements to their house over their lifespan, over like 20-30 years,” said Ryan Palos. “Whereas we’re being forced to do all of this at one time … it’s just not fair.”

“People say, ‘You’re going to have a brand-new house, so new,’” said Ann Palos. “I would give up everything just to have my home back. I don’t want to deal with this. I would much rather this not have happened.”

The Palos family wanted their neighbors and people in the community to learn from their story: They advised everyone to double check their policy coverage to make sure they’re covered for any type of catastrophe and do an inventory now of their possessions so you do not have to try to remember everything that was lost once it is gone.

“That’s one of the biggest headaches right now is trying to remember what we lost in order for the insurance to, you know, kind of pay out on that part of the policy,” said Ryan.

When asked about their feelings toward the man who started the fire, Ann and Ryan Palos had mixed feelings.

“When I look back at this, we were affected by the same outage he was, because apparently we’re on the same power grid,” said Ryan. “But we had the common sense that the gas wasn’t shut off in our house and if we needed to cook anything we would use the stove … It’s just mind-boggling to me how you would even think of that (outdoor grilling) as an option when you have sustained winds over 30 mph … it doesn’t make sense.”

“I don’t wish the guy back luck. I mean, it was an accident,” said Ann. “We understand that and we just want to move forward.”

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