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Freelance photographers rush to a brush fire — and help catch an arson suspect

Suspected arsonist
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies arrest a man suspected of starting a brush fire in Neenach, a small community 34 miles northwest of Lancaster. The department identified the man as 27-year-old David Artiaga.
(Jeff Zimmerman / Zimmerman Media and Southern California Fire Journal)

Freelance photographers Jeff Zimmerman and Bernie Deyo are usually out covering fire stories but on Tuesday they found themselves in the middle of one.

The two photographers took photos and video of a suspected arsonist setting fires in Neenach, a small community 34 miles northwest of Lancaster.

Zimmerman said the man was yelling, “spot fires, spot fires,” and said he watched him start several of the fires. 

“He ran through the wall of flames several times, screaming and yelling,” he said. “As a retired fire captain, this was pretty bizarre.”  

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A man suspected of starting fires in Neenach is seen running away from flames.

A man suspected of starting fires in Neenach is seen running away from flames.

(Jeff Zimmerman / Zimmerman Media and Southern California Fire Journal)

Joey Marron, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said the brush fire was reported around 6:57 p.m. Tuesday near 269th Street and Highway 138. He said firefighters were able to contain the fire, which burned about 13 acres.   

Before noticing the fire, Zimmerman and Deyo had just finished eating dinner. He said they had been talking about the hot and dry weather and how the area hadn’t seen a fire in a while. When he got up, he saw a plume of smoke through the kitchen window.  He immediately told his friend, who thought he was joking around.

“Put the bottle of wine down and come look out the window,” Zimmerman said he told Deyo, who eventually looked and saw the fire.

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The men got into a silver truck and drove to the fire, where they ran into a shirtless man in black shorts and boots. Zimmerman had heard over the scanner that someone had been burned, so he approached the man. 

“I said, ‘Sir, are you injured or are you burned?’” 

“Who are you?” Zimmerman said the man asked.

“I’m a retired fireman, we’re here to help. And he said, ‘No thanks, I’m going to set more fires.’”

Zimmerman said the man ran across the street and proceeded to set four more fires. 

“It is unbelievable that someone would intentionally start fires,” he said. 

Zimmerman said as firefighters tried to douse the flames, he and the man’s mother tried to subdue him to stop him from setting any more fires. He eventually gave up and was taken into custody by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.

The department has identified the suspected arsonist as 27-year-old David Artiaga, who was jailed in lieu of $50,000 bail. 

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Zimmerman said the mother of Artiaga told him her son may have been under the influence of methamphetamine. He said she told him her son was addicted to drugs.

“Hopefully he’ll get some help through drug and alcohol counseling through the county,” he said. “By the grace of God we didn’t lose a bunch of homes out there.” 

ruben.vives@latimes.com

For more Southern California news, follow @latvives on Twitter.

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