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Transient charged with setting blaze 6 days before Station fire

Officials say they're still investigating whether Babatunsin Olukunle, a 25-year-old Nigerian national, may have played a role in the massive Station wildfire as well.

October 20, 2009|Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein

A man sought for questioning in the massive Station wildfire that killed two firefighters has been arrested and charged with setting a smaller blaze less than a week before in Angeles National Forest, authorities said Monday.

Babatunsin Olukunle, a 25-year-old Nigerian national, appeared briefly in a Pasadena courtroom and pleaded not guilty to the felony charge of setting a fire Aug. 20 on U.S. Forest Service land.

"We are going to talk to him about the Station fire, but we're not going to list him as a suspect [in that fire] just yet," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Liam Gallagher, who is leading the arson-homicide probe.

The arrest comes as officials announced Friday that the largest brush fire in Los Angeles County history had finally been contained -- a full 52 days after it started.

The blaze burned 160,577 acres and cost an estimated $95.2 million to fight, according to authorities.

The fire broke out Aug. 26 off Angeles Crest Highway near a ranger station north of La Canada Flintridge.

While officials have determined the fire was deliberately set, they have struggled to develop solid leads pointing to the arsonist.

Olukunle was arrested Thursday collecting recyclables in Lancaster, more than a week after detectives announced they wanted to question him. It remains unclear what role, if any, he played in the Station blaze.

Law enforcement sources familiar with the case said that investigators so far have firm evidence only that the transient set a small fire six days before the Station fire.

That earlier fire occurred at mile marker 36 of Angeles Crest Highway, approximately six miles from where the Station fire erupted. Like the Station fire, the earlier blaze was started off Angeles Crest Highway during the afternoon.

Two Forest Service employees who spotted Olukunle setting the first blaze ordered him to stay put while they extinguished the flames. But investigators say he slipped away into the woods.

Detectives received several tips about a transient walking up and down Angeles Crest Highway for several months before the Station fire. Detectives believe Olukunle was that transient.

Olukunle's family has told investigators that he came home from UC Davis for summer break in 2007, began acting strangely and disappeared in July.

He was arrested in November 2007 in Redondo Beach for "illegal camping" and in April of this year he was placed on a 72-hour mental-observation hold by authorities in Crescenta Valley.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

52 -- Days to bring the Station fire, the largest brush fire in L.A. County history, under containment

160,577 -- Acres burned

$95.2 million -- Estimated cost of battling the blaze

Source: Inciweb.org

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