LAKE ELSINORE (CBSLA) – Firefighters made significant progress overnight Friday and into Saturday against a raging wildfire burning in the Cleveland National Forest that was threatening communities around Lake Elsinore and forced more than 21,000 people to evacuate.
As of 5 p.m. Saturday, the Holy Fire had burned 22,158 acres and was 36 percent contained, up from just 10 percent containment the day before. At least 12 structures have been destroyed.
With resources stretched thin battling the 11 other large wildfires burning throughout California, it has taken time for officials to get the full number of personnel needed on the Holy Fire. About 1,560 personnel were battling the blaze as of Saturday, which sparked in Orange County’s Holy Jim Canyon and had spread to the east into Riverside County and towards 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.
“Fire continues to spread east and north with only limited spread to the west,” the Cleveland National Forest said in a statement. “The fire will continue to impact subdivisions along the foothills of Riverside County. There remains the daily potential for an “Elsinore” down slope event. The fire spread will be an impact to Orange County Subdivision of El Cariso Village. The atmosphere over the fire continues to be very unstable and will allow for large smoke column development and active to extreme fire behavior.”
A 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.
Mandatory evacuations were lifted Saturday for the communities of Horsethief, McVicker Canyon and Rice Canyon.
However, they remained in place in Lake Elsinore for all homes on the mountain-side of Lake Street and southwest of Grand Avenue to the Ortega Highway are under mandatory evacuation orders.
Also under mandatory evacuation are the communities of Holy Jim Canyon, Trabuco Canyon Recreation Residence Tracts, Blue Jay and Falcon Campgrounds, El Cariso Village, Rancho Capistrano, Glen Eden Canyon, and Sycamore Creek.
The 74 Highway corridor from the Lookout restaurant to the Nichols Institute is also under mandatory evacuation. A 28-mile stretch of the 74 Highway has been shut down in both directions from Grand Avenue in Lake Elsinore to the Nichols Institute in San Juan Capistrano because of the proximity of the brush fire to the two-lane corridor.
The Shoreline community is under a voluntary evacuation order.
The Holy Fire broke out on the afternoon of July 6 near Holy Jim and Trabuco Canyon roads, on the west side of the Santa Ana Mountains. The blaze quickly spread amid steep terrain, thick brush and scorching temperatures. It is burning in an area which has not seen a wildfire since about 1980.
A Holy Jim Canyon resident who was arrested on arson charges Tuesday in connection with the Holy Fire was arraigned Friday. Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, made an animated court appearance, 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.
Orange County Fire Authority investigators believe the fire started near Clark’s cabin. Of the more than a dozen cabins in Clark’s area, his is the only one that was not destroyed, the Orange County Register reports.
Volunteer Fire Chief Mike Milligan, who also has a cabin in the area, told the 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’s arraignment was delayed until Friday because he had refused to come out of his cell to appear in court Thursday. He is 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.
If convicted, Clark could face 10 years to life in prison.
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.”
All schools in the Lake Elsinore Unified, Menifee Unified, Perris Union High School and Perris Elementary School districts in Riverside County will be closed Saturday due to poor air quality caused by the fire.
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.
So far, five firefighters have sustained injuries battling the blaze.
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.
CAL Fire has set up a hotline for residents to call for information on the blaze. They can call either 714-573-6200 and 714-573-6202.
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. 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.
Firefighters with OCFA, USFS and the Cal Fire Riverside Fire Department are among the several agencies battling the blaze.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)