Tera Swick watched in horror as monster flames raced down a mountain Friday morning and toward her mother’s neighborhood.
She and her family had been tracking the Holy fire during the last few days, watching it gain steam then stall as it climbed through the Santa Ana Mountains from Orange County into the foothills above the Riverside County lake community.
All night, the fire raced toward the Robin Hood Oaks subdivision, which was illuminated with flames and the flashing lights of fire trucks. Swick had a U-Haul packed with belongings ready to go with her family.
Then, a plane flew in low and dropped water on the flames. Swick and her family screamed with excitement.
“They’re just amazing,” she said. “We’re cheering them on every time they’re making drops.”
It was that kind of day on the Holy fire lines, as a squadron of 12 fixed-wing planes and 14 helicopters pounded the 21,400-acre fire with water and retardant.
It’s been an epic aerial assault that is showing signs of success. By Saturday morning, containment of the fire had jumped from 5% to 29% in less than 24 hours. While flames whipped dangerously close to Lake Elsinore suburban developments, there has not been a major loss of housing so far.
The hot conditions and unpredictable weather has made it difficult for firefighters to get ahead of the fire. But they have one big advantage: easy access to the water from Lake Elsinore, which they have used for countless drops.
The short distance from the lake to the flames has proven a key factor in tamping down the flames.
“If you have to travel a long distance you risk of allowing the fire to regrow,” said Thanh Nguyen, spokesman for Southern California Interagency Incident Management Team 1, which is managing Holy fire operations.
The air bombardment occurred day and night. Teams were halted for a short time Thursday night because of poor visibility. At least one plane and a tanker had to make an emergency landing in San Bernardino Friday after one or two of the aircrafts struck a bird.
“The air operations have been relentless,” Nguyen added. “When we drop so many gallons of water, we’re doing it to overwhelm the heat with the coolness of the water.”
The fire started several days ago near Holy Jim Canyon in Orange County, allegedly on purpose by a local resident. It moved up through the rugged Cleveland National Forest and down into Riverside County, where it approached thousands of homes. More than 20,000 people were ordered to flee their homes as more than 1,000 firefighters battled the fire.
Firefighters have battled extreme heat as well as winds, which sent embers flying and caused new spot fires. The winds pushed the fire faster than firefighters could reach it.
“We have high temperatures in the burning areas, steep terrain, but on top of that, dry fuel,” Nguyen said. “The growth is extraordinary.”
Three firefighters have been hurt, but so far there have been no civilian casualties. Twelve structures were lost, mostly deep in the forest.
Residents in Lake Elsinore said they were awed by the ground and air campaigns, saying they saw how those efforts stopped flames they thought for sure would push into their neighborhoods and destroy homes.
“We want to thank the firefighters for all the hard work,” said Ana Tran, who on Thursday opened her garage door and saw fire retardant falling from above onto homes, cars and plants.
Orange County authorities arrested Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, for allegedly causing the fire. He faces numerous charges including aggravated arson of property and of a forest. Clark lives in the canyon area where the fire started. On Friday, he appeared in court, making several outbursts after his bail was set at $1 million. His arraignment was set for Aug. 17.
It was not immediately clear how the fire was set but investigators said they identified Clark based on witness statements and physical findings at the fire.
Before he was arrested, Clark gave a rambling interview with KABC-TV Channel 7, saying he didn’t know anything about the fire.
“I have no idea. I was asleep; I had two earplugs in,” he told the station, adding that gangs were after him and that he’d been up for more than 20 days after visiting a South Orange County hospital.
As Swick looked at the fire sweeping toward her Lake Elsinore neighborhood after midnight Friday morning, she said it was hard to believe this much destruction could have been caused by one man.
“It’s disgusting,” she said.
But she could not say enough about the firefighters defending her subdivision. Swick said her late father was a Cal Fire firefighter. He led female inmate crews, and she knows how dangerous the job can be.
“These guys out here are the ones that deserve the attention,” she said. “They’re fighting so hard.”