Holy Fire In Riverside County Prompts Mandatory Evacuations

LAKE ELSINORE (CNS) - Mandatory evacuations were in place and school closures were ordered today in parts of Riverside County as a burgeoning, fast- moving wildfire burning in the Cleveland National Forest moved east toward Lake Elsinore, getting dangerously close to mountain-side homes, and north into Coldwater Canyon and towards Santiago Peak.

 The Holy Jim Fire, which began on the Orange County side of the forest and spread into Riverside County, has grown in size to 18,137 acres -- up from 10,236 acres on Thursday -- and is still only 5 percent contained, authorities said today. More than 7,400 homes and structures and 21,484 people were evacuated in both counties, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

 ``For those wondering about containment, the hand/containment line grows as the fire grows,” a Cleveland National Forest Service statement said. ``We continue to actively engage, but cannot get ahead of the fire.”

 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.

 On Thursday afternoon, the flames raced downhill toward Lake Elsinore, threatening homes and prompting mandatory evacuation orders for homes fronting the mountains.

 ``It just hurts knowing that everything we've done here, all the memories, might be washed away with just, with the blink of an eye,” Sam Penueles told NBC4 as she and her parents prepared to evacuate their Lake Elsinore home.

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.

All schools in the Lake Elsinore Unified, Menifee Unified, Perris Union High School and Perris Elementary School districts in Riverside County will be closed today due to poor air quality caused by the fire.

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.

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.

 Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Orange and Riverside counties Thursday due to the effects of the Holy Fire, allowing the state Office of Emergency Services to provide assistance to the counties.

 The proclamation also waives various requirements for state agencies to procure materials, goods and services to assist with the response and recovery from the impacts of the fire, suspends the one-week waiting period to apply for unemployment benefits for people who have lost their jobs because of the fire, allows people who have lost their driver's license, vehicle registration certificate or certificate of title for their vehicles because of the fire to get free replacements and to get free replacements of birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates destroyed by the fire.

 Brown's declaration came hours after Forrest Gordon Clark 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.

 The 51-year-old 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 today.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Photo: Getty Images

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