Arson Suspect Charged with Multiple Felonies as Massive Holy Jim Fire Burns

LAKE ELSINORE (CNS) - The raging Holy Fire made an aggressive run into Lake Elsinore today, prompting a new round of mandatory evacuations and bringing flames dangerously close to a mountain-side neighborhood, but fire crews appeared to successfully divert the flames before any homes were damaged. 

The Holy Fire, which erupted Monday afternoon in the Holy Jim Canyon area on the Orange County side of the Cleveland National Forest, has charred more than 9,600 acres and forced thousands of people from their homes as the flames advanced. 

As of Thursday night, the blaze was only 5 percent contained. Forrest Gordon Clark, a 51-year-old Holy Jim Canyon resident accused of torching the fire, was charged Thursday morning 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 Orange County 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. 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. The blaze destroyed a dozen cabins in the Holy Jim Canyon area, but the Orange County Register reported that Clark's cabin in the same neighborhood wasn't damaged. 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. 

The mountain-facing side of Lake Street was ordered evacuated, along with neighborhoods southwest of Grand Avenue to the Ortega Highway. Dramatic footage showed flames raging just beyond backyard fences in the area, 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. 

A large swath of homes, however, was left 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. Voluntary evacuations were also issued in the Shoreline Community, in an area between Grand Avenue and the South Main Divide road, between roughly Ortega Highway and Garner Road. 

Two firefighters were injured during Thursday's battle against the flames, one in the Horsethief Canyon area and the other in Lake Elsinore. One suffered a fractured knee and another twisted an ankle. 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. 

As many as 16 air tankers, 10 helicopters and additional fixed-wing aircraft were assisting ground crews. As of Thursday, 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. 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. 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. 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. Information numbers for residents were established at (714) 573-6200 and (714) 573-6202.

Photo: Getty Images and Corbin Carson

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