California firefighters begin week on attack

A firefighter watches a helicopter drop water at the Holy Fire in Lake Elsinore Saturday.

Firefighters battling more than a dozen fires in California made major progress over the weekend, quadrupling the containment of one blaze threatening homes in the southern part of the state.

The Holy Fire was 51% contained by late Sunday, up from 10% on Friday.

For the past week, the blaze has scorched through canyons and across mountains in Orange and Riverside counties, fueled by dry vegetation as it crept into residential areas.

With the firefighters’ ongoing progress, authorities lifted evacuation orders in several neighborhoods in Lake Elsinore, the city most threatened by the fire.

About 11,120 people remain under mandatory evacuation, down from 21,000 on Friday.

Man accused of arson

Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, was charged with aggravated arson and criminal threats, among other crimes, for allegedly starting the fire. He’s being held on $1 million bail, and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.

A volunteer fire chief said that two weeks ago, Clark sent him a message saying, “The place is going to burn.” Clark has denied involvement in starting the fire, saying, “It’s all a lie.”

So far, the Holy Fire has scorched more than 22,700 acres in the Cleveland National Forest.

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Orange and Riverside counties, and several school districts have canceled classes due to fire warnings and unhealthy air quality.

While it’s not the largest burning in the state, the Holy Fire has raised concerns about effects on residential communities.

New normal?

In addition to the Holy Fire, firefighters in California are battling at least 10 large blazes, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

California is seeing more destructive wildfire seasons because of dry conditions and high temperatures, and Brown has warned that this is the new normal. The state spent a quarter of its annual firefighting budget in July.

The largest blaze in state history is the Mendocino Complex Fire, which consists of the Ranch and River fires in Northern California. It has burned a combined 336,399 acres and injured two firefighters. The River Fire is almost contained, and the larger Ranch Fire is 62% contained.

The Carr Fire

The second biggest is the Carr Fire in Shasta County, also in Northern California. The deadly fire has burned for nearly three weeks and killed eight people. It has consumed 201,680 acres so far and is 61% contained.

On Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue tweeted that he and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would be visiting the city of Redding Monday, where the Carr Fire is about half contained.

On Sunday Zinke posted images to Twitter of destruction in Shasta County.

“Wow. This used to be the neighborhood of some of my employees. Despite losing everything they own, many of them still come to work to restore power, fight fires, and repair damaged facilities. My heart and gratitude goes out to all of them,” Zinke tweeted.

“I have no words that describe the loss and devastation experienced by the community. I’ve been to a lot of fires and this is just something else. We are here for you,” he said.

Yosemite sites reopening

The third largest is the Ferguson Fire, near Yosemite National Park, incinerating nearly 96,000 acres. It has lasted nearly a month and is 83% contained.

The National Park Service says Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias will reopen to the public on Monday at 9 a.m. and the Yosemite Valley on Tuesday. Both had been closed due to the Ferguson Fire and the NPS warned motorists to be cautious of fire and smoke on the roads.

“We’d like to express our sincere gratitude to the firefighters and Incident command teams for their great efforts in suppressing the Ferguson Fire. We’d also like to express our gratitude and thanks to our gateway communities who tirelessly helped visitors to the area while they were being impacted by the fire,” the park’s superintendent said in a release.

Fire officials have issued a grim prediction, warning that massive blazes will cost the state billions of dollars more over the next decade.

“What we’re seeing in California right now is more destructive, larger fires burning at rates that we have historically never seen,” Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox said.