New mandatory evacuations were ordered for the Lake Elsinore area Thursday afternoon as the Holy fire continued burning closer to homes in Riverside County.
Evacuations were ordered for all homes on the mountain side of Lake Street and southwest of Grand Avenue to Ortega Highway, according to fire officials. The orders came as fire crews battled to stop flames from entering the previously evacuated neighborhood of McVicker Park, and hours after a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection mechanic assigned to the Carr fire died in a vehicle crash in Tehama County. The death was the eighth fatality connected to the furious blaze that has scorched roughly 177,000 acres in Northern California, officials said.
The victim, described as a heavy equipment mechanic, died in a crash on Highway 99, Cal Fire said in a statement.
The crash happened at 12:17 a.m. after a Dodge Ram 5500 veered off the highway’s right shoulder and slammed into a tree, according to Officer Ken Reineman of the California Highway Patrol’s Red Bluff station. The vehicle caught fire, and the victim has not been publicly identified, Reineman said.
The Thursday morning wreck led to the eighth death connected to the Carr fire, which has proved to be the most lethal of the year. Four Redding residents, a Redding firefighter, a bulldozer operator and a Pacific Gas & Electric utility worker also have died in connection with the blaze, which has destroyed more than 1,000 homes, officials have said.
As the Carr fire has moved deeper into the forest and away from structures in Redding, firefighter commanders have routinely warned of the dangers of driving on roadways clogged by a growing number of emergency personnel in the area.
For days, the streets in western Redding and the rural communities along the Sacramento River have been a gantlet for law enforcement and firefighters who have had to negotiate the sometimes-narrow winding roads that are half-blocked by massive PG&E trucks. Firefighters roam road shoulders patrolling for hot spots, while day by day, more Shasta County residents return to the area.
“The biggest hazard for this operational period is going to be driving,” Carr fire public safety officer Baraka Carter told firefighters at a morning briefing earlier this week. “With the number of resources we have assigned to this incident, the number of utility companies that are actively engaged and the number of residents we are [repopulating,] that number is going to increase tenfold.”
The mechanic’s death came as firefighters across the state continue to battle more than a dozen wildfires that have scorched more than 600,000 acres, bolstered by an extremely warm July and years of drought that have left underbrush ripe to burn.
In Southern California, the Holy fire had grown to 9,614 acres by Thursday morning, continuing to burn areas of Orange and Riverside counties as it crept toward canyon homes, officials said.
Firefighters have achieved only 5% containment, Cleveland National Forest officials said on Twitter, though fire crews are hoping favorable weather conditions over the weekend will help them stem the fire’s advance.
Evacuations have been ordered in McVicker Canyon, Rice Canyon, Horsethief Canyon, El Cariso, Rancho Capistrano, Indian Canyon, Glen Eden, Sycamore Creek and Mayhew Canyon, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The Ortega Highway corridor from Lookout Roadhouse to Nichols Institute also was included in the evacuation order.
Police said Wednesday the blaze may have begun as an act of arson. Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, was arrested earlier this week on suspicion of felony arson and making a threat to terrorize in connection with the ignition of the Holy fire. On Thursday, the Orange County district attorney’s office announced that Clark had been charged with one felony count each of aggravated arson of five or more inhabited structures; arson of inhabited property; arson of forest; criminal threats; two felony counts of resisting and deterring an executive officer; and a sentencing enhancement for arson burning multiple structures.
He faces up to life in prison if convicted, according to prosecutors, who said the fire has damaged or destroyed at least 14 homes. Clark’s arraignment was delayed Thursday and could take place Friday, according to Rebecca Moss, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.
Clark was scheduled to appear in court Thursday afternoon, but that was postponed a day when he refused to leave his jail cell, according to officials.
It was not clear whether Clark had retained an attorney. He is being held in lieu of $1-million bail.
Before his arrest, Clark gave a rambling interview to a television reporter, claiming he did not know how the fire began.
“I was asleep. I had two earplugs in,” he said, according to a report by KABC-TV Channel 7. “I’ve been up for, like, 20-some-odd days because Mission Hospital put me on this Amblin stuff.”
By Thursday afternoon, fire crews were battling to prevent flames from moving into a Lake Elsinore neighborhood along McVicker Canyon Park Road.
Hillsides overlooking the evacuated homes were stained pink by fire retardant as flames filled the air with dark smoke.
Other large fires are also continuing to drain resources and push firefighters to exhaustion. The sprawling Mendocino Complex fire in Lake County, which became the largest in state history earlier this week, had grown to 304,402 acres as of Thursday morning, officials said. The Donnell fire in Stanislaus County, which drew concern when it grew exponentially over the weekend, has now burned 17,941 acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service.