A 51-year-old man was behind bars Wednesday on suspicion of arson in connection with the fast-moving wildfire that has charred 6,200 acres and destroyed a dozen cabins in the Holy Jim Canyon area of the Cleveland National Forest and was advancing into Riverside County.
Forrest Gordon Clark was arrested Tuesday and is being held in lieu of $1 million bail, according to jail records. U.S. Forest Service officials said Clark was booked on suspicion of two counts of felony arson, one felony count of threat to terrorize and a misdemeanor count of resisting arrest.
The fire started Monday but was only 5 percent contained as of Wednesday night, according to fire officials.
During an afternoon briefing, Orange County Fire Authority Battalion Chief Shane Sherwood said the fire began “around and near” Clark’s cabin in Holy Jim Canyon. He declined to comment on specifics that led to his arrest, other than saying witness statements and “physical findings” at the scene led to the belief Clark set off the massive blaze.
“As far as exactly how it was started, we’re still working through some of that evidence,” Sherwood said.
Volunteer Fire Chief Mike Milligan, who also has a cabin in the area, told the Orange County Register Clark has long feuded with a neighbor and other cabin owners. He ran through the area last week screaming, and sent Milligan an email warning that “this place will burn,” Milligan said.
Sherwood declined to comment on that report.
Clark is tentatively expected to appear in court Thursday. Susan Kang Schroeder of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office said the suspect is expected to be charged with aggravated arson affecting multiple structures, criminal threats and resisting an executive officer — charges that could bring a life prison sentence.
Assistant District Attorney Chris Duff said he anticipates meeting with investigators and going over evidence early Thursday and possibly filing charges by late morning.
The Holy Fire is being fed by thick, tinder-dry brush that hasn’t burned in nearly four decades.
The fire was reported about 1:15 p.m. Monday near Holy Jim Canyon and Trabuco Creek roads, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Tony Bommarito said.
The size of the fire had been listed at 3,399 acres on Tuesday, but it increased in size near the Horsethief Canyon area, authorities said Wednesday. It later jumped the North Main Divide dirt road, burning into the Lake Elsinore area, Bommarito said.
As the fire advanced into Riverside County, mandatory evacuation orders were issued for McVicker Canyon, Rice Canyon, Horsethief Canyon, Glen Eden, El Cariso Village, Sycamore Creek and Rancho Capistrano, along with the Ortega (74) Highway corridor from the Lookout restaurant to the Nichols Institute. Those areas had previously been under voluntary evacuation orders.
Caltrans ordered the complete closure of Ortega Highway because of the proximity of the brush fire to the two-lane corridor. By 3 p.m., California Highway Patrol officers had implemented the closure from Grand Avenue in Lake Elsinore to the Nichols Institute entrance in San Juan Capistrano, covering about 28 miles.
Crews continued aerial and ground firefighting efforts Wednesday, with 16 air tankers, 10 helicopters and additional fixed-wing aircraft assisting ground crews, who were working to build bulldozer lines, authorities said.
About 445 firefighters were battling the blaze. With so many wildfires throughout the state, the firefighting personnel has been spread thin, Bommarito said.
“Fire will continue to spread southeast and north with only limited spread to the west,” according to a Cleveland National Forest statement. “The lack of resources for direct attack will allow the fire to spread into new areas and align for strong head-fire runs and potential for an `Elsinore’ downslope event.”
So-called Elsinore winds typically kick up in the afternoon in the area of Lake Elsinore, which is just east and south of the fire.
Firefighters had been particularly worried about the northeast flank, where the flames were a few miles away from homes, said Kathy Kramer, a spokeswoman for the unified fire management team led by the Cleveland National Forest and the Riverside branch of Cal Fire.
Weather conditions with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees and relative humidity below 15 percent lent themselves to conditions conducive to extreme fire behavior as well as heat illnesses for the firefighters, the U.S. Forest Service said.
Trabuco and Holy Jim canyons were also under mandatory evacuation orders, as well as the Blue Jay and El Cariso campgrounds. All campgrounds in the Trabuco Ranger District were closed and forest road closures were in effect for Trabuco Creek, Maple Springs, North Main Divide, Bedford and Indian Truck Trail.
A care and reception center was established at Temescal Canyon High School on El Toro Road in Lake Elsinore. An evacuation center is also open at San Juan Hills High School at 29211 Stallion Ridge in San Juan Capistrano.
Small animals can be taken to Animal Friends of the Valley at 33751 Mission Trail in Wildomar. Information is available by calling (951) 674-0618 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. or (951) 506-5069 between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. For those under mandatory evacuation, animals large and small can also be taken to Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, 30753 La Plata Road in San Juan Capistrano.
Livestock was being accepted at Elsinore High School in the 21800 block of Canyon Drive.
Two firefighters were treated for heat-related injuries Monday.
A U.S. Forest Service spokesman said more than a dozen cabins in Clark’s neighborhood had burned. Clark’s cabin, however, was not damaged by the fire, the Orange County Register reported.
Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer had harsh words for Clark, saying that if he is convicted he “needs to suffer the fullest punishment of the law.”
“This is a monster,” Spitzer said. “Who would go out with low humidity and high winds and the highest heat temperatures this time of the year and intentionally set the forest on fire? … He’s literally destroyed our forest.”
Spitzer said the Holy Fire should be more appropriately named the “Holy Hell” fire.
Humidity improved slightly Wednesday, but it was still a factor. The steep terrain makes it difficult for fire engines to get to some of the flames, so the major weapons against the blaze are the aerial water drops, officials said.
Bommarito noted that the area probably hasn’t burned since about 1980.
The phone numbers for residents to call for information on the Holy Fire have changed, according to CalFire. The new numbers are (714) 573-6200 and (714) 573-6202.