Man arrested in West Coyote Hills brush fire that charred 80 acres, threatened homes

Fullerton police said late Wednesday that an arrest has been made in connection with an 80-acre brush fire in Fullerton and La Habra on Tuesday.

Paul Munoz, 56, was arrested on suspicion of trespassing and unlawful starting of a fire, said Lt. Mike Chocek of the Fullerton Police Department. His city of residence was not provided.

The reason investigators believe Munoz started the fire or its possible cause were not released Wednesday night.

The fire began around 3:50 p.m. in dry brush near Castlewood Drive and Gilbert Street in the undeveloped West Coyote Hills area in Fullerton before being completely contained Wednesday morning, said Julie Kunze, deputy fire chief for the Fullerton and Brea fire departments. The fire crept close to homes nearby and about 40 households were asked to evacuate.

Development of the land where the fire occurred has been the subject of years of contention between Chevron-owned Pacific Coast Homes and Friends of Coyote Hills, a nonprofit that has fought against developing the area.

The group wants to save Coyote Hills for a park and nature preserve.

Plans are in the works to subdivide, into nine neighborhoods, 510 acres owned by Chevron for about 760 homes at the West Coyote Hills development, officials said in June.

If the Fullerton Planning Commission approves the proposed subdivision, Chevron has indicated that it is willing to listen to offers for parts of or the entire parcel.

The nonprofit is hoping to round up sufficient money to acquire the entire property, officials said.

A tentative tract map showing the subdivisions could go before the Planning Commission for consideration in October, according to city officials.

The development of West Coyote Hills could serve as a buffer to prevent future wildfires like the one that burned Tuesday, Kunze said.

“The development has a fuel modification plan proposed that has a safe zone of reduced or removed vegetation of up to 120 feet from structures,” she said.

Tuesday’s fire cane within 100 yards of some homes, burning cactuses, pepper trees and brush in hilly terrain, according to Kunze.

About 250 firefighting personnel, 30 engines and five aircraft were involved Tuesday in extinguishing the wildfire, which injured two firefighters, officials said.

On Wednesday morning, crews were putting out hot spots and mopping up to ensure that the blaze didn’t reignite, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi said. An OCFA helicopter was also dropping water on hot spots, he said.

The fire spread easterly then moved northeast, across a swath of undeveloped land toward South Idaho Street and West Risner Way in La Habra, south of Vista del Valle Park.

The Fullerton Police Department evacuated 40 homes along North Euclid Street early Tuesday evening, police officials said.

La Habra police officers went door to door to about 40 additional homes to encourage residents to leave, but an evacuation order was quickly removed, Kunze said. Residents were allowed to return to their homes around 8 p.m. Tuesday.

None of the threatened homes burned and there were no injuries to residents, Kunze said.

Of the two firefighters who were injured, one was treated for smoke inhalation and the other for heat-related injuries, Kunze said.

The Orange County Fire Authority and the Los Angeles County, Orange, Anaheim, Garden Grove and Fullerton-Brea fire departments responded to the fire.

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