Northern California

Holy Fire Flares Up in Cleveland National Forest

The fire was 95 percent contained as of Saturday, but some small spots continued to smolder in rugged terrain

What to Know

  • The Holy fire started Aug. 6 in Cleveland National Forest
  • An arson suspect was charged in connection with the nearly 23,000-acre wildfire
  • Containment is expected this week after nearly a month of fighting the fire in sweltering summer heat

Firefighters responded Monday to a flare-up of the nearly 23,000-acre Holy Fire that sent a towering smoke plume over Cleveland National Forest. 

The fire was 95 percent contained as of Saturday, but some small spots continued to smolder in rugged terrain along the rim of the burn zone. Crews have been working to establish containment lines since the alleged arson blaze erupted on the afternoon of Aug. 6 in the Holy Jim Canyon area, on the Orange County side of the national preserve.

The flare-up was deep within an area that burned earlier, but the fire crossed containment lines and burned about 150 acres by late Monday afternoon. 

Air tankers, water-dropping helicopters and hand crews were dispatched to the flare-up. Firefighters are attempting to prevent flames from burning near communications towers on nearby Santiago Peak.

"Their objective will be to protect communication towers, but there are no residential structures threatened," said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Tony Bommarito.

Winds in the area were gusting to 26 mph, but temperatures were cooler than earlier this month when firefighters faced sweltering triple-digit heat.

By the evening, the flare-up was 10 percent contained. 

The fire has blackened an estimated 22,986 acres -- about 36 square miles --  in Orange and Riverside counties. Flames damaged or destroyed 24 structures, officials said.

The remaining crews assigned to the blaze were digging and filling in pits made by bulldozers to starve the flames of fuel.

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.

Along with USFS crews, Cal Fire, Riverside County, Corona, San Bernardino County and personnel from other agencies deployed to the brusher, aided by multiple air tankers and water-dropping helicopters.

The OCFA asked anyone who may have been in the Holy Jim Canyon area on Aug. 6 around the time the fire began to contact investigators at 714-573-6700 or 714-573-6709.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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