Firefighters continued to make significant progress against the Holy fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest near Lake Elsinore, raising the fire’s containment to 41% on Sunday, officials said.
The blaze has been burning along inaccessible ridges and mountains in Orange and Riverside counties since Monday, chewing through bone-dry chaparral, short grass and brush that have not seen a fire in decades.
As of Sunday morning, the Holy fire — named for Holy Jim Canyon Road, near where the fire got its start — had burned 22,714 acres and 12 structures, officials said. All of those structures burned in the fire’s early stages. A damage assessment team was working to determine whether more structures had been damaged or destroyed, said Thanh Nguyen, a public information officer for an incident management team assigned to the fire.
Residents who had evacuated the McVicker Canyon neighborhood just east of the national forest were returning Saturday to find that firefighters, and a few homeowners who stayed behind, had prevented any homes from burning.
“Thank you is not enough for these firemen,” said Minnie Gaucin, who watched the Thursday-afternoon drama on a surveillance camera feed from her sister’s house in Temecula, as firefighters used hoses and hand tools to save her home at the corner of Edgewood and North Crest drives.
“They were in our yard putting the fire out, four or five firemen” Gaucin said. “I was watching my own home on my phone; the flames were very high. I started crying. I wanted my home to be safe.”
On Saturday she found there was no damage, “just ashes everywhere.”
Kenneth Leishman, one of the few residents who ignored the evacuation order, recounted how he watched flames rush “past the last mountaintop and down the gully” to his house on Edgewood.
“When they told everybody to evacuate, I stayed,” Leishman said.
His 5-year-old house is built of fire-resistant materials, but its attic vents could be passageways for embers, firefighters told him. Following their advice, he worked for hours on his roof covering the 14 vents with cardboard and duct tape.
Then he started cutting brush in his backyard until firefighters came to help him.
“They didn’t like my plug-in chain saw, so they took over,” Leishman said.
When the fire came, it was sudden.
“At one point it felt like it was a mile away,” Leishman said. “In about 30 seconds it turned on the wind. That was it. It was in our backyard. It sounds like a freight train coming toward you. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been there.”
Leishman said he got down from his roof and waited it out in the street with firefighters and police.
Examining his almost undamaged house after it was over, he found piles of embers under the vents.
High temperatures, steep terrain and dry grasses and other fuels on the mountains have made firefighting difficult, Nguyen said.
Firefighters will face thunderstorms this weekend, in addition to soaring temperatures, gusty winds and dry conditions — creating a period of “near critical fire weather,” officials said in a news release.
Wind gusts also have lifted embers out of the main blaze and deposited them in new areas, sparking fires that stretch the firefighters thin, Nguyen said.
“All those things make it difficult,” Nguyen said.
The Holy fire has injured three firefighters and displaced more than 20,000 people. It started Monday near Trabuco Canyon and was intentionally set, officials said.
More than 1,200 firefighters are battling the blaze. Also on scene are 12 airplanes and 14 helicopters to fight the fire from the air.
Although weather is not on the firefighters’ side, geography is. Lake Elsinore has been the source of water for many drops, officials said, and the short distance from the lake to the fire has been a big help.
“If you have to travel a long distance, you risk allowing the fire to regrow,” Nguyen said.
On Friday, a plane and the water tanker it was leading were both forced to land after striking a bird. Nguyen said it was unclear which of the two planes had hit the bird, but both landed safely, with no one aboard suffering any injuries.
Orange County authorities arrested Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, earlier this week and charged him with multiple counts of arson in connection with the Holy fire.
Clark had a brief court appearance in Santa Ana on Friday, during which he made several outbursts, calling the charges against him a “lie” and insisting that he was being threatened. His bail was set at $1 million. His arraignment was set for Aug. 17.
Clark’s Facebook feed is littered with links to popular conspiracy theories, some pertaining to land use. The Cleveland National Forest is federal land, and cabins in the area where Clark lives and where the fire was started are not supposed to be used as full-time residences.
More than 13,000 firefighters are battling 18 blazes across California. The fires have scorched more than 650,000 acres, an area larger than Sacramento County.
The largest is the Mendocino Complex fire, the biggest recorded in California history. The blaze, made up of the Ranch and River fires, had burned more than 328,226 acres as of Saturday morning. The Ranch fire was 58% contained, and the River fire was 92% contained.
In Redding, the 186,416-acre Carr fire was 55% contained. That fire had destroyed 1,881 structures, including 1,077 homes and other residential structures, and threatened 528 others.