Holy Fire Flares Up Near Santiago Peak

posted by City News Service - 

TRABUCO CANYON (CNS) - The nearly 23,000-acre Holy Fire that has been burning for three weeks in the Cleveland National Forest but was largely surrounded appeared to flare up again today, scorching about 150 acres and threatening communication towers on Santiago Peak.

The flames erupted about 9:20 a.m. Fire officials initially said the flare-up occurred within previously established Holy Fire containment lines but managed to cross that line by late Monday morning.

But as of early afternoon, Jake Rodriguez, a U.S. Forest Service public information officer, said, “At this point, we can't say whether it's a flare-up or a new start.”

Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Tony Bommarito said five air tankers and four helicopters were assigned to the fire, with the primary goal of protecting communication towers on the peak. He noted that no residential structures were being threatened.

Rodriguez said the flames were spreading at a “slow to moderate” rate, and crews were focusing their attention on the western flank, “where there's open vegetation.” Flames on the east were running into the “Holy Fire scar” and existing lines of fire retardant.

About 300 firefighters were attacking the flames, Rodriguez said, but he noted that accessing the site is proving to be difficult.

“It's an hour and a half on dirt roads just to get on site,” Rodriguez said.

The Holy Fire, which broke out in the Holy Jim Canyon area on Aug. 6, had reached 95 percent containment as of Friday, although small spots were continuing to smolder along the rim of the burn zone.

Prior to Monday's apparent flare-up, the fire had burned an estimated 22,986 acres in Orange and Riverside counties, and it damaged or destroyed 24 structures, officials said.

Forrest Gordon Clark, 51,is charged with aggravated arson resulting in damage to at least five inhabited structures, arson of inhabited property, arson of forest and criminal threats in connection with the blaze.

Clark has a cabin in Holy Jim Canyon, and arson investigators allegedly uncovered evidence indicating the fire was ignited in the immediate vicinity of his property, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.

A volunteer fireman, Mike Milligan, who has a cabin near Clark's, told reporters the defendant has had a long-running feud with a neighbor and other cabin owners. In the days prior to the fire, Clark ran through the area screaming and sent Milligan a message warning that “this place will burn,” he said.

Clark is being held in lieu of $1 million bail and is undergoing a court-ordered evaluation for mental illness.

The Holy Fire bore down on Lake Elsinore and surrounding communities for six days, prompting mandatory evacuations and road closures. The Ortega (74) Highway between San Juan Capistrano and Lake Elsinore was closed from Aug. 8 to Aug. 14 due to the monster blaze.

Several firefighters were injured battling the flames, though none of the injuries were life-threatening.

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