Holy Fire Continues to Grow as Arson Suspect Appears in Court

posted by City News Service - 

SANTA ANA (CNS) - Firefighters reported significant progress along the edge of the Holy Fire today, controlling the spread of the fire and protecting homes, but braced for high temperatures and low humidity throughout the weekend, while the man accused of starting the fire remained jailed awaiting a rescheduled arraignment next week.

 The fire has burned 21,473 acres and was 29 percent contained as of 8:30 a.m. Saturday, according to the Cleveland National Forest. More than 1,200 firefighters battled the fire, which continued to spread to the east toward Lake Elsinore and north into Cold Water Canyon and Santiago Peak, prompting the evacuation of more than 7,400 homes and structures and 21,484 people, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, made an animated court appearance this week, marked by several outbursts. At one point he was heard spitting.

Clark labeled the arson charges against him a “lie” and insisted he was being threatened. When a court commissioner ordered his bail to remain at $1 million, Clark said he can easily afford it and asked if he could pay it right away.

Clark's arraignment was delayed until Friday, Aug. 17. Clark, who refused to come out of his cell to appear in court Thursday, 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.

Clark could face 10 years to life in prison. He also faces sentencing enhancements for arson of multiple structures.

More than 1,200 firefighters were battling the Holy Fire as of Friday, which continued to spread to the east toward Lake Elsinore and north into Cold Water Canyon and Santiago Peak, prompting the evacuation of more than 7,400 homes and structures and 21,484 people, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

One plane used to fight the fire had to make an emergency landing Friday following a bird strike, officials said. It landed safely in San Bernardino, officials said.

On Thursday, the size of the fire had been listed at 10,236 acres and the containment was listed at 5 percent.

“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.”

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

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.

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.

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.

Meanwhile, Orange County sheriff's deputies said they have had multiple encounters with Clark dating back to 2006, according to Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the department.

When called to his cabin Aug. 2, they couldn't find him, Braun said.

On July 23, a family member called deputies for help saying he was acting erratically, Braun said.

Clark was placed on what's known as a “5150 hold,” meaning he was placed in custody for 72 hours to evaluate his mental health, but social workers deemed him eligible to release three days later, Braun said.

“Every time deputies responded or interacted with Mr. Clark, which is numerous times over the years, they have responded appropriately while also respecting his constitutional rights,” Braun said. “You can't predictively place someone under arrest for something they haven't yet done.”

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency for Orange and Riverside counties 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.

Authorities have not offered specifics on what led them to Clark as an arson suspect. 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 said witness statements and “physical findings” at the scene led to the belief Clark set the massive blaze.

When investigators went to question Clark earlier this week, he abrasively told them they weren't allowed on his property, the flashpoint of the fire, Assistant District Attorney Chris Duff said. He is accused of threatening his neighbors, including one whose cabin burned down an hour later, Duff 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 home 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 at 1:15 p.m. 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. As of Friday morning the number of destroyed structures officially remained at 12, although television footage appeared to show a home burning to the ground in the Lake Elsinore area Thursday night.

The fire was reported at 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 Saturday morning for portions of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties because of the Holy fire.

Two firefighters were treated for heat-related injuries Monday. Two other firefighters were reportedly injured Thursday while fighting the blaze near Lake Elsinore and Horsethief Canyon.

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. More than 30 aircraft were being utilized Friday and pilots continued making daring low-level drops of water and fire retardant.

Bommarito noted the area probably hasn't burned since the early 1980s.

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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