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Holy fire explodes to more than 18,000 acres amid fears of 'extreme fire behavior

Tribune News Service logoTribune News Service 2018-08-10 By Ruben Vives and Alene Tchekmedyian, Los Angeles Times

a man with dark hair and a sunset in the background: Firefighters watch for flare ups as they prevent the flames from the Holy Fire from crossing the Ortega Highway in Lake Elsinore, Calif., on Aug. 10, 2018. © Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS Firefighters watch for flare ups as they prevent the flames from the Holy Fire from crossing the Ortega Highway in Lake Elsinore, Calif., on Aug. 10, 2018. LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. - Firefighters on Friday continued to battle an 18,000-acre wildfire in the Cleveland National Forest after it spread into Riverside County overnight and forced thousands to evacuate.

The Holy fire has destroyed at least 12 structures, but the U.S. Forest Service said that no additional homes had been lost as the fire spread. The fire remains only 5 percent contained.

a group of people standing on top of a mountain: A fire fighter perched on high spot monitors Holy Fire along Ortega Highway that is closed to traffic on Aug. 10, 2018 in Lake Elsinore, Calif. © Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS A fire fighter perched on high spot monitors Holy Fire along Ortega Highway that is closed to traffic on Aug. 10, 2018 in Lake Elsinore, Calif.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Orange and Riverside counties. A suspected arsonist has been arrested in connection with the fire, which began Monday afternoon.

About 1,000 firefighters are on the scene, and more crews and aircraft continue to pour into the area. Fire commanders reported that a bird might have struck one of the aircraft but added that it landed without incident. Officials are expecting another hot day Friday, with temperatures in the 90s.

"These conditions will increase the likelihood of extreme fire behavior as well as heat illness issues for the firefighters and the public," fire officials said in a statement Friday.

As flames flickered behind Ana Tran's McVicker Canyon home, she and her friend rushed to their car and sped past firefighters who were heading toward the blaze. Thick black smoke billowed above homes and cars were blanketed in pinkish fire retardant.

The residents, like many others, made a frantic escape Thursday after winds picked up in Lake Elsinore and pushed the raging Holy fire within feet of homes. More than 20,000 residents were urged to leave their homes.

When Tran returned to her neighborhood, she found her home - still standing - under a smoky sky.

"It feels like a war zone," she said, ash collecting on her forehead as she snapped photos of flames igniting behind a row of homes on Woodbridge Street near Crest Drive.

"I don't even recognize the neighborhood," added her friend, Bao Vinh.

A mile or so away, Apolonio Escalante and his wife walked around scanning the aftermath of the fire that had swept through their Rice Canyon neighborhood. Hundreds of homes sit across from the canyons; some are snuggled deeper in the terrain. The fire left trees stripped bare, everything black. Street signage was damaged.

Escalante said he was at his construction job when his wife called with an urgent request: Get home, flames are nearby.

The couple loaded valuables and corralled their 6-year-old German shepherd, Muneca, into a dog crate and put her onto the bed of their truck. Then they got the hoses out, watching flames rise 40 to 100 feet high.

"We were watering everything," his wife, Josefina Escalante, said. "It looked like someone had poured gasoline on the fire. ... It took off."

The fire burned close to Rice Canyon Elementary School, but the campus did not appear damaged. The Escalantes said their home has water, power and gas, so they won't have to find shelter elsewhere.

"Tomorrow," Apolonio Escalante said, "I go back to work."

Josefina chimed in: "Me too."

Thursday evening, fixed-wing planes were temporarily grounded because of poor visibility. Soon, air quality improved and they took off again. While homes in and around Little John Way were under threat after dusk, many residents on the east of Grand Avenue hadn't left their homes as the fire began coming down the mountain. Most were shooting photos and videos as air tankers dumped fire retardant.

As hundreds of firefighters and 10 water-dropping helicopters worked to douse flames and stop them from spreading, prosecutors Thursday filed several charges against a man suspected of setting the blaze.

In an interview with a reporter before his arrest, Forrest Clark, 51, said he had no idea how the fire started. "I was asleep. I had two earplugs in," Clark said, according to a video obtained by KABC-TV Channel 7.

Authorities did not say how or why Clark ignited the fire. The Trabuco Canyon resident faces one felony count each of aggravated arson of five or more inhabited structures, arson of inhabited property, arson of forest and criminal threats, and two felony counts of resisting an executive officer.

If convicted, Clark faces a maximum sentence of life in state prison.

Meanwhile, the Lake Elsinore Unified School District announced that the start of the school year would be postponed from Monday until Aug. 20.

In Los Angeles County, two men were charged with setting a separate brush fire near the Morris Dam, a reservoir in the San Gabriel Mountains. Christopher Paul Ortega, 20, of Glendora, and Santino Francisco Gnaulati, 21, of Covina, each face one felony count of arson of a structure or forest.

Sheriff's deputies and prosecutors say the men, who have pleaded not guilty, started the fire near Highway 39 in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Glendora early Tuesday. Firefighters quickly got a handle on the blaze, which burned a quarter of an acre.

a ship on the water with a mountain in the background: A DC-10 drops fire retardant on the very stubborn Holy Fire over Lake Elsinore along Ortega Highway Aug. 10, 2018 in Lake Elsinore, Calif. © Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS A DC-10 drops fire retardant on the very stubborn Holy Fire over Lake Elsinore along Ortega Highway Aug. 10, 2018 in Lake Elsinore, Calif.

If convicted, Ortega and Gnaulati face up to six years in state prison. They are due back in court later this month.

Early Friday morning, Tera Swick stood in the front yard of her Lake Elsinore home, her arms behind her head, watching the flames coming down the mountain.

"I don't even know which way to watch," she said.

It had been only two hours ago when the fire seemed to slow, moving away from the neighborhood.

But now ash was falling and the wind was picking up.

A truck loaded with motorbikes and other valuables stood running on Nottingham Way, slowing the movement of fire trucks.

"That guy has to move his truck," Swick said.

Two minutes later, a man came running toward the vehicle, apologizing and moving the truck.

a man standing on a rocky hill: Jon Polansky, 28, relaxes with a view of Lake Elsinore after performing very tiring all night shift at lookout on Ortega Highway along with his crew from US National Forest E-342, E-344 and E-346 Friday Aug. 10, 2018 near Lake Elsinore, Calif. © Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS Jon Polansky, 28, relaxes with a view of Lake Elsinore after performing very tiring all night shift at lookout on Ortega Highway along with his crew from US National Forest E-342, E-344 and E-346 Friday Aug. 10, 2018 near Lake Elsinore, Calif. a group of people sitting on a bench: Tired from all night shift at lookout on Ortega Highway, this hard-working crew of US National Forest E-342, E-344 and E-346 waits for the morning shift to replace them Friday Aug. 10, 2018 near Lake Elsinore, Calif. © Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS Tired from all night shift at lookout on Ortega Highway, this hard-working crew of US National Forest E-342, E-344 and E-346 waits for the morning shift to replace them Friday Aug. 10, 2018 near Lake Elsinore, Calif.

Swick and her mother and brother-in-law sat by the driveway waiting for authorities to force them to leave.

She and her family cheered on the firefighting aircraft.

"They're just amazing," she said. "We're cheering them on every time they're making drops."

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