Man acquitted of starting 2018 Holy fire, which burned 23,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties

Two firefighters stand near flames at night.
Firefighters conduct a burn operation to remove fuel around homes on Aug. 10, 2018, as the Holy fire marched closer to Lake Elsinore, Calif.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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An Orange County man was acquitted Thursday of charges of igniting the massive Holy fire, which ripped through Cleveland National Forest in 2018, scorching over 23,000 acres and destroying 24 structures.

A jury acquitted Forrest Gordon Clark, 56, of three felony counts of arson in connection with the fire, which raged through Orange and Riverside counties. Clark was arrested in August 2018, maintaining he “was asleep” when the fire started on Aug. 6.

Public defender Jason Phlaum said fire experts had made a “rush to judgment” in accusing Clark, who had been described as a “weird guy with long hair” by neighbors.


Calls to Phlaum’s office on Thursday were not immediately returned.

Clark had been charged with aggravated arson of five or more inhabited structures, arson of an inhabited structure or dwelling, and arson of structure or forest. The jury trial began in March.

The fire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 200 structures in Shasta County, began after a damaged pine tree fell onto PG&E power lines.

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Two counts of resisting arrest were dropped in 2018.

The jury, however, did convict Clark on Thursday of one felony count of making criminal threats.

Kimberly Edds, spokesperson for the Orange County district attorney’s office, said that Clark was sentenced to two years in prison but released for time already served.

Prosecutors said shortly after his arrest that Clark presented “an unreasonable risk of danger to society and presents a clear threat to public safety.”

Neighbor Mike Milligan accused Clark in 2018 of berating him because of differing religious views and said he believed Clark had cut his water line at one point.


“Forrest is an extremely intelligent person, and honest to God, he does have psychological issues, but he knows what he’s doing,” Milligan said at the time. “When somebody comes after him, he [doesn’t] respond normally by walking away or negating it or forgetting about it. He lashes out.”

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Clark’s brother, Everett, filed a restraining order on behalf of himself and his mother against Clark in 2012, alleging that he had spat in his face and pushed him. He added that his brother had smashed potted plants and threatened to shoot his dog.

“He does small hateful things to me all the time,” Everett Clark wrote at the time.

Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said in 2018 that deputies have dealt with Forrest Clark since 2006. He had a long history of feuding with neighbors, who suspected him of being involved in a series of local thefts and incidents of vandalism.

But Clark was never linked to those crimes.

Nevertheless, it was these types of feuds and allegations against him by neighbors and family members that buttressed investigators’ belief that Clark may have been behind the fire, officials said.

City News Service contributed to this report.