California's Holy Fire prompts evacuation order for 20,000 people

A local man was arrested Tuesday on charges that he deliberately set the wildfire. Officials said he previously threatened, "This place will burn."
by Dennis Romero, Caitlin Fichtel and Associated Press /  / Updated 

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Aircraft turned hillsides red with retardant as homeowners wet their houses with garden hoses in a battle to contain an 18,000-acre wildfire, which prompted evacuation orders for more than 20,000 people south of Los Angeles.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Thursday night for Orange and Riverside counties as a four-day-old fire carved its way along ridges and hillsides of the Cleveland National Forest. At times during the week, smoke plumes from the blaze could be seen from northern San Diego County to southern Los Angeles county.

Brown’s proclamation said thousands of homes were threatened by the fire in the foothills above Lake Elsinore and nearby communities and ordered state agencies to help local governments. Twelve structures have burned and containment was 5 percent, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Firefighters planned to work through the night to gain ground against the blaze before the expected Friday afternoon return of blustery winds that might drive the flames to new ferocity.

Image: Flames from the Holy Fire shoot up above homes in Lake Elsinore
Flames from the Holy Fire shoot up above homes in Lake Elsinore, California, on Aug. 9, 2018.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

An area resident, 51-year-old Forrest Clark, was in court Friday to face allegations that he deliberately set the fire on Monday. He is charged with arson and other crimes and could face life in prison if convicted.

During the appearance a judge read a list of allegations and Clark responded, "That's a lie" before his defense attorney requested that the arraignment be continued to Aug. 17, which was granted. Clark was being held in lieu of $1 million bail.

Clark was originally scheduled to appear Thursday but the hearing was postponed because he refused to come out of his cell, NBC Los Angeles reported.

The Orange County Register reported that a man with the same name and birth date as the suspect had been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility in 1996 and was later the subject of a restraining order filed by a mother against her son.

Michael Milligan, chief of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, told the Register that Clark had a decade-long feud with neighbors and sent him threatening emails last week, including one that said, “this place will burn.” Ironically, his cabin was the only one in the canyon to survive the flames, the newspaper reported.

Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer told reporters that the blaze should be renamed the "Holy Hell" fire.

"This is a monster," he said, according to The Register. "Who would go out with low humidity and high winds and the highest heat temperature this time of year and intentionally set the forest on fire?"

As flames raged closer to foothill homes on Thursday, some residents ignoring evacuation orders stood in driveways or on top of roofs and used garden hoses to wet down their property as smoke billowed around them.

Joe Rodriguez, 38, used a power washer on his patio in the McVicker Canyon Park neighborhood.

“Until this thing is barking at my door, I’m going to stick with it,” he told the San Bernardino Sun.

Thirty-three-year-old Robby Corlee of nearby Temecula said he went to check on the fire-zone home of an out-of-town cousin. He said he had decided to stay despite mandatory evacuation orders.

The fire "looks like it’s getting worse, not better," he said. It's "definitely very scary."

Area resident Sam Elsaaty said he was startled when he saw "a huge flame" on a hilltop near Horsethief Canyon.

“It was monstrous,” the 37-year-old said.

Despite his decision to stay put with his wife and children, "the cars are loaded and ready," Elsaaty told NBC News. "At the moment, it’s been the worst it’s been," he said midday Friday.

Phil Williams, 57, stayed near his home in Brookstone Ranch, an unincorporated community of about 5,000 people. His family and pets evacuated along with most of his neighbors but as a member of the local water district, he stayed to help out.

Late Thursday, he described seeing 70-foot-tall flames creeping within 150 yards of his large yard.

“It’s all tinder and as soon as the flames hit it, it’s gone,” he said. “You can hear the fire coming. It truly does roar. ”

Williams, who had cut back brush around the home, said he planned to “wait for the sun’s up, see what’s left. Not much more than you can do.”

“If I didn’t do a good enough job, I’ll just rebuild,” he said. “It’s only sticks.”

Firefighters fought a desperate battle as huge flames came within yards of some homes, feeding on dense, dry chaparral and propelled by 20-mph gusts. They want to encircle the fire before it can devour neighborhoods and take lives, as gigantic fires still burning in Northern California have done.

“Our main focus this afternoon was getting everyone out safely,” said Thanh Nguyen, a spokesman for the crews battling the Holy Fire.

Although the fire — named for the canyon where it started — destroyed a dozen cabins after breaking out Monday, fire crews were able to prevent further losses but the fire was still virtually uncontrolled as its growth nullified progress in corralling it.

Wind speeds and temperatures dropped as night fell but gusty winds could pick up again Friday afternoon, the National Weather Service warned.

Meanwhile, two major wildfires — one called the Mendocino Complex Fire that is the largest in California history — were burning more than 100 miles north of Sacramento.

Crews turned a corner and achieved 51 percent containment of the Mendocino Complex — actually twin fires that are being fought together. The fire destroyed more than 100 homes and has blackened an area about the size of the city of Los Angeles.

In the Redding area, the year’s deadliest fire was nearly half surrounded and was burning into remote and rugged forest land but grass, brush and trees there are so dry from years of drought and recent heat that the potential remained for the fire to grow, state fire officials said.

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