WEST COVINA (CNS) - A homeless man accused of setting a brush fire that charred more than 4,200 acres and forced evacuations of some homes in Azusa last month pleaded not guilty today to felony arson charges.
Osmin Palencia, who lives in a tent near the Mountain Cave community, allegedly started the blaze -- dubbed the Ranch 2 Fire -- during an Aug. 13 argument with a fellow transient, according to prosecutors.
The 36-year-old defendant -- who prosecutors say has a prior conviction from 2015 for dissuading a witness -- is charged with one count each of arson during a state of emergency and arson of a structure or forest.
Palencia is due back in court Dec. 9 and could face up to up to 23 years in state prison if convicted as charged, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.
The blaze began about 2:45 p.m. Aug. 13 near North San Gabriel Canyon Road and North Ranch Road -- as a heat wave was gripping the Southland -- and took nearly two weeks to fully contain. Eight firefighters suffered heat- related injuries battling the flames, which forced residents in the Mountain Cove area of Azusa to evacuate in the first day and into the next.
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 said. “Ran over to try to put it out, but it just took off so quick.”
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