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Man Arrested On Arson In Growing Holy Fire, More Evacuations Issued

NEAR CORONA (CBSLA) – A man has been arrested in connection with the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest southwest of Corona, which grew overnight Tuesday, as weary firefighters take on another day of scorching hot temperatures and low humidity.

By Wednesday afternoon, the Holy Fire had grown to 6,200 acres from Holy Jim Canyon to the canyons above Lake Elsinore and was only 5 percent contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service. At least 12 structures have been destroyed.

holy fire suspect Forrest Gordon Clark
Authorities say Forrest Gordon Clark is a resident of Holy Jim Canyon whose home was the only surviving structure in his area during the Holy Fire. (Photo via OCSD)

On Tuesday night, a 51-year-old man who lives in a cabin in Holy Jim Canyon was arrested in connection with the fire. Forrest Gordon Clark was taken into custody of O.C. Sheriff's deputies after he allegedly sent an email last week which read, "this place will burn," according to the Orange County Register.

Of the 14 cabins in Clark's area, his is the only one that was not destroyed, the Register reports.

He was booked on two counts of felony arson, one count of felony threat to terrorize and one count of misdemeanor resisting arrest. He was scheduled to appear in court on Thursday.

"We're anticipating filing one count of aggravated arson with enhancement that it effected multiple structures, one count of criminal threats and two counts of resisting executive officer through force of threats," said Susan Schroeder chief of staff for the O.C. District Attorney's Office, at a Wednesday afternoon news briefing.

If convicted of all charges, he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

"This is a monster, who would go out with low humidity, and high wind and the highest heat temperatures this time of year, and intentionally set the forest on fire," O.C. Supervisor Todd Spitzer said.

He is being held on $1 million bail, according to jail records.

The fire was pushing northeast into Horsethief Canyon, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Black heavy smoke had filled the skies above Horse Thief Canyon, with huge flames shooting up from the ridges early Wednesday morning. Contributing to its rapid spread is that it is burning in an area that has not seen a fire since about 1980.

Mandatory evacuations were issued Wednesday afternoon for the communities of McVicker, Rice Canyon, Horsethief, Glen Eden, El Cariso Village, Sycamore, Painted Canyon and Rancho Capistrano.

"The fire is steadily moving down several drainages going out to the Lake Elsinore area," Incident Commander Chris Fogle told reporters Wednesday. "Those drainages feed into the communities down there at the foothills. And we have folks down there that are getting positioned to deal with that fire as it reaches down there to the valley floor."

Trabuco and Holy Jim canyons were already under mandatory evacuation, 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.

The fire is burning in both Orange and Riverside counties. Ash had fallen in several surrounding communities, including in Corona and Lake Elsinore, where people living in a neighborhood on Palm View Street watched as flames continued inching toward Riverside County.

Holy Fire suspect arrest
Orange County Sheriff's deputies talk to a Forrest Gordon Clark, a resident of Holy Jim Canyon whose home was the only surviving structure in his 14 cabin area during the Holy Fire. He was arrested by deputies Aug. 7. (Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register)

Because of the resources needed to battle the Mendocino Complex burning in Northern California – now the largest wildfire in state history – along with several others burning across the state, only 444 personnel were assigned to the Holy Fire as of Wednesday morning. However, at a morning briefing, officials said they are hoping to double that number soon. Ten water-dropping helicopters and seven fixed-wing aircraft were being used in the aerial attack.

Holy Fire
The Holy Fire burns on a hillside near Horsethief Canyon in the Cleveland National Forest. Aug. 8, 2018. (U.S. Forest Service)

The Holy Fire broke out before 1:20 p.m. Monday 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.

Holy Jim Canyon resident Tilson Schumate told CBS2 Monday that he and his wife barely made it out of their cabin before the area was overtaken by flames.

"We were in the cabin for only five minutes, but in that five minutes, the flames had already come up over the hill… so those cabins are gone for sure," Schumate said.

Wednesday evening, KCAL9's Stacey Butler spoke to residents who were staying put.

They camped in an area they said gave them the best view of the fire as it began to crest on top of a hill.

"I believe I should stay here and protect my property," said one man. "We have our friends here, we have our neighbors here. We're going to protect our little piece of the world."

A care and reception center was established at Temescal Canyon High School on El Toro Road in Lake Elsinore. Small animals can be evacuated to Animal Friends of the Valley at 33751 Mission Trail in Wildomar.

Firefighters with the Orange County Fire Authority, USFS, Cal Fire and Riverside County Fire Department are among the agencies battling the blaze.

Residents can call (714) 573-6200 and (714) 573-6202 for information on the Holy Fire.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)

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