A 51-year-old man was charged Thursday with arson for allegedly setting the fast-moving Holy Fire, which has blackened 10,236 acres of the Cleveland National Forest and was only 5 percent contained.
Forrest Gordon Clark, who was being held in lieu of $1 million bail, was charged with aggravated arson damaging at least five inhabited structures, arson of inhabited property, arson of forest and criminal threats, all felonies, as well as two misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest, according to Assistant District Attorney Chris Duff. Clark could face 10 years to life in prison. He also faces sentencing enhancements for arson of multiple structures.
Clark refused to leave his jail cell Thursday, so his arraignment was postponed until Friday.
When investigators went to question Clark he abrasively told them they weren’t allowed on his property in Holy Jim Canyon, the flashpoint of the fire, Duff said. He is accused of threatening his neighbors, including one whose cabin burned down an hour later, Duff said.
During a Wednesday 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 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.
Clark spoke to a videographer from OnScene outside his Holy Jim Canyon prior to his arrest, insisting he had nothing to do with the fire.
“I have no idea,” Clark said during the rambling interview. “I was asleep. I had two earplugs in.”
He added: “I woke up and my stuff was all on fire,” he said.
He claimed during the interview that he was the target of threats from the MS-13 gang.
Since it erupted Monday afternoon, the blaze has destroyed a dozen cabins in the Holy Jim Canyon area of the Cleveland National Forest and advanced into Riverside County. While the blaze has continued its unrelenting march, U.S. Forest Service officials said Thursday they “expect favorable weather conditions this weekend” to help the firefighting effort.
On Thursday afternoon, the flames raced downhill toward Lake Elsinore, threatening homes and prompting mandatory evacuation orders for homes fronting the mountains.
“It’s right there on the hill … and there’s active firefighting going on right now” to keep the flames from homes, said Thanh Nguyen of the Garden Grove Fire Department, who is one of the spokesman for the firefighting effort.
What started as voluntary evacuations around 1:30 p.m. quickly escalated in 30 minutes to mandatory evacuations, Nguyen said.
At their height, the flames appeared to be licking at the backs of homes closest to the mountains, but a series of precision drops of water and fire retardant successfully deflected the blaze, at least temporarily, and there were no immediate reports of homes being damaged in the area.
A large swath of homes, however, was bathed fire retardant, creating the appearance of a bright red river cutting through the threatened neighborhood.
Riverside County sheriff’s deputies stepped up patrols in the evacuated areas to prevent looting, Nguyen said.
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 fire dramatically increased in size near the Horsethief Canyon area on Wednesday, then jumped the North Main Divide dirt road, burning into the Lake Elsinore area of Riverside County, 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. California Highway Patrol officers implemented the closure from Grand Avenue in Lake Elsinore to the Nichols Institute entrance in San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, 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.
An estimated 700 firefighters were battling the blaze. With so many wildfires throughout the state, incident commanders initially struggled to get enough firefighters on the lines of the Holy Fire.
Weather conditions with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees and relative humidity below 15 percent created conditions conducive to extreme fire behavior as well as heat illnesses for the firefighters, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory through Friday in Orange County and portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties because of the Holy fire. In Los Angeles, the advisory covers the east and south San Gabriel Valley and Pomona/Walnut Valley.
All schools in the Menifee Unified School District in Riverside County were closed Thursday due to poor air quality caused by the fire, and the campuses will remain shuttered Friday. The Perris Union High School District will also be closed Friday.
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.
The steep terrain was making 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.
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