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  • A firefighter sets a backburn to fight the Holy Fire as it burns in the Cleveland National Forest along a hillside at Temescal Valley in Corona, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Firefighters fought a desperate battle to stop the wildfire from reaching homes as the blaze surged through the forest above the city of Lake Elsinore and its surrounding communities. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • Hummer Estes watches a helicopter battling the Hat Fire, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Fall River Mills, Calif. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Bree Seville uses a small brush to sweep the stairs leading to burned out ruins of her fiancee's mother's home in the Keswick area of Redding, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. California is seeing earlier, longer and more destructive wildfire seasons because of drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and home construction deeper into the forests. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • A firefighter keeps watch on the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • A sheriff's deputy stands guard at a gate near a hillside as the Holy Fire burns in the Cleveland National Forest at Temescal Valley in Corona, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • A haze of smoke blankets San Francisco Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. Public health and air quality experts say the smoke drifting over cities in California is lasting for a longer stretch than normal as some of the biggest wildfires in state history rage. (AP Photo/Lorin Eleni Gill)

  • The Holy Fire burns in the Cleveland National Forest at a hillside near homes in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • The Holy Fire burns in the Cleveland National Forest at a hillside near homes in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • Loretta Root wipes her eyes while visiting the remains of her home in the Keswick area burned in the Carr Fire, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Redding, Calif. "It's hard to see this," Root says of her family home. Several of Root's family members living nearby also lost their homes to the fire. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • Firefighters keep watch on the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • The Holy Fire burns in the Cleveland National Forest along a hillside at Temescal Valley in Corona, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • Starla Davis cries as she packs a suitcase in her makeshift tent at an evacuation center Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Redding, Calif. Davis was living with a friend near Whiskytown and had to evacuate because of the Carr Fire. The evacuation center closes on Aug. 10. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • The Holy Fire burns near homes in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • A firefighter battles the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • A firefighter battles the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest along a hillside at Temescal Valley in Corona, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Firefighters fought a desperate battle to stop the Holy Fire from reaching homes as the blaze surged through the Cleveland National Forest above the city of Lake Elsinore and its surrounding communities. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • Firefighters battle the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • The Holy Fire burns the backyard of a home in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2017, file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, flames burn near power lines in Sycamore Canyon near West Mountain Drive in Montecito, Calif. California lawmakers raised concerns Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, that a proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown to shield electrical utilities from some financial liability for wildfires would give them too much protection without ensuring the utilities safely maintain their equipment. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File)

  • Residents watch the Holy Fire burning in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • Hummer Estes watches a helicopter battling the Hat Fire, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in Fall River Mills, Calif. (AP Photo/John Locher)

  • FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2017, file image taken from video provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, spot fires burn near power lines as heavy smoke fills the air from a wildfire in Santa Barbara, Calif. California lawmakers raised concerns Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, that a proposal from Gov. Jerry Brown to shield electrical utilities from some financial liability for wildfires would give them too much protection without ensuring the utilities safely maintain their equipment. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File)

  • A firefighter keeps watch as the Holy Fire burns in the Cleveland National Forest along a hillside at Temescal Valley in Corona, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Firefighters fought a desperate battle to stop the Holy Fire from reaching homes as the blaze surged through the Cleveland National Forest above the city of Lake Elsinore and its surrounding communities. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

  • Members of Cal Fire take pictures while a plane drops water on the Holy Fire in the Cleveland National Forest in Lake Elsinore, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Friday, August 10, 2018 12:00 pm

Firefighters battle to curb wildfire before winds return

RINGO H.W. CHIU and AMANDA LEE MYERS | Associated Press

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. -- Aircraft turned hillsides red with retardant as homeowners wet their houses with garden hoses in a battle to contain an arson wildfire, which prompted evacuation orders for more than 20,000 people south of Los Angeles.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Thursday night for Orange and Riverside counties as a four-day-old fire carved its way along ridges and hillsides of the Cleveland National Forest.

Brown's proclamation said thousands of homes were threatened by the fire in the foothills above Lake Elsinore and nearby communities and ordered state agencies to help local governments.

Firefighters planned to work through the night to gain ground against the blaze before the expected Friday afternoon return of blustery winds that might drive the flames to new ferocity.

A resident of Holy Jim Canyon in the forest was scheduled for a court hearing Friday on charges that he deliberately set the fire.

Forrest Clark, 51, is charged with arson and other crimes and could face life in prison if convicted. It wasn't immediately known whether he had a lawyer.

Michael Milligan, chief of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, has told the Orange County Register that Clark had a decade-long feud with neighbors and sent him threatening emails last week, including one that said, "this place will burn." Ironically, his cabin was the only one in the canyon to survive the flames, the newspaper reported.

As flames raged closer to foothill homes on Thursday, some residents ignoring evacuation orders stood in driveways or on top of roofs and used garden hoses to wet down their property as smoke billowed around them.

Joe Rodriguez, 38, used a power washer on his patio in the McVicker Canyon Park neighborhood.

"Until this thing is barking at my door, I'm going to stick with it," he told the San Bernardino Sun.

Firefighters fought a desperate battle as huge flames came within yards of some homes, feeding on dense, dry chaparral and propelled by 20-mph gusts. They want to encircle the fire before it can devour neighborhoods and take lives, as gigantic fires still burning in Northern California have done.

"Our main focus this afternoon was getting everyone out safely," said Thanh Nguyen, a spokesman for the crews battling the Holy Fire.

Phil Williams, 57, stayed near his home in Brookstone Ranch, an unincorporated community of about 5,000 people. His family and pets evacuated along with most of his neighbors but as a member of the local water district, he stayed to help out.

Late Thursday night, he described seeing 70-foot-tall flames creeping within 150 yards of his large yard.

"It's all tinder and as soon as the flames hit it, it's gone," he said. "You can hear the fire coming. It truly does roar. "

Williams, who had cut back brush around the home, said he planned to "wait for the sun's up, see what's left. Not much more than you can do."

"If I didn't do a good enough job, I'll just rebuild," he said. "It's only sticks."

Although the fire — named for the canyon where it started — destroyed a dozen cabins after breaking out Monday, fire crews were able to prevent further losses but the fire was still virtually uncontrolled as its growth nullified progress in corralling it.

Wind speeds and temperatures dropped as night fell but gusty winds could pick up again Friday afternoon, the National Weather Service warned.

 

Myers reported from Los Angeles. Michael Balsamo and Christopher Weber of the Associated Press in Los Angeles contributed to this story.