ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Josh Castro waited until the last minute to escape the massive inferno near his house in Southern California.
Despite mandatory evacuation orders, Castro had stayed behind to protect his Lake Elsinore home from looters, he said. His wife, children and dog had evacuated as the bright orange flames from the Holy Fire swept through the canyon, sending ash and billowing black smoke in his neighborhood.
Then the flames moved up the hill, closer to his backyard, and Castro decided it was time to leave. A sheriff’s deputy banged on his door and told him it will only get worse, and Castro left his home of eight years and joined the line of cars snaking out of Lake Elsinore.
“I don’t know anything about the neighborhood,” Castro said Thursday. “Hopefully I have a house in the morning.”
As night fell Thursday, the Holy Fire had destroyed about a dozen structures since it erupted Monday at the Cleveland National Forest.
In a week, it has scorched 10,236 acres and was 5% contained. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Orange and Riverside counties, where more than 21,000 people are under mandatory evacuation orders.
And authorities said things will only get worse, with the area forecast to have temperatures in the 90s and gusty winds of up to 25 mph.
“These conditions will increase the likelihood of extreme fire behavior as well,” the US Forest Service said.
Man is accused of arson
Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, the man who allegedly started the fire, was charged Thursday with aggravated arson and criminal threats, among other offenses.
Clark was arrested this week on suspicion of setting off the blaze after he allegedly sent a text to a volunteer fire chief two weeks ago saying, “The place is going to burn.”
Footage of the arrest shows the suspect standing in handcuffs without a shirt on as his neighbors’ homes burn nearby.
Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Milligan says he’s known the suspect for decades, and has long warned that he posed a danger to the community.
Milligan said he was so wary of the suspect that he avoided going to the area of the remote Orange County canyon where he lives.
Clark came to his home two weeks ago to return items he said he had “borrowed” from the fire department, Milligan said.
When he told Clark he wanted nothing to do with him, the suspect swore at him and called him a jerk, he said.
The next morning, Milligan said, he got a mysterious text from an unknown number: “911 call sheriff.” Milligan called back and though the reception was poor in the canyon, he recognized Clark’s voice, he said. Later came an expletive-laden text that ended with the ominous warning: “The place is going to burn just like you planned.”
Milligan said he did not know what he meant, adding that Clark sent emails to other people in which he talked about burning something.
Clark is being held at the Orange County Jail on $1 million bail and is expected to make a court appearance Friday. If found guilty, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Before he was arrested, Clark told a freelance cameraman he was asleep when the fire started and had no idea how it began.
‘This should be called the Holy Hell Fire’
Although it’s not the largest fire burning in the state, there are growing concerns about its effect on residential communities, including Lake Elsinore. Some small communities in Riverside County are under mandatory evacuation orders affecting about 7,500 residential structures, according to authorities.
Orange County supervisor, Todd Spitzer, said Clark “needs to suffer the fullest punishment of the law.”
“We know this district burns, but it should never burn because of an intentional act. This shouldn’t be called the Holy Jim fire, it should be called the Holy Hell fire,” he said.
Fire officials warned residents to heed evacuation orders.
“Even if you’re miles away, you want to be prepared if you’re near the fire area or in an environment that can burn,” said Thanh Nguyen with the SoCal Team One Fire Management Team, who suggested having a packed bag ready to go.
Over a dozen fires are burning in California
In addition to the Holy Fire, firefighters in California are battling 15 large fires.
The largest fire in state history is the Mendocino Complex Fire, which consists of the Ranch and River fires in Northern California. That blaze has burned 305,152 acres and injured two firefighters, and was 52% contained by Thursday night.
The second biggest fire is the Carr Fire in Shasta County, also in Northern California. The deadly fire has been burning for more than two weeks and consumed 178,752 acres as of Thursday night. It is 49% contained, and has killed eight people, including three firefighters.
The third largest is the Ferguson Fire, near Yosemite National Park, incinerating more than 95,000 acres. The fire has lasted more than three weeks and killed two people.