Gov. Brown Declares State of Emergency in O.C., Riverside Counties as Holy Fire Burns More Than 10,000 Acres

Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday evening proclaimed a state of emergency in Orange and Riverside counties due to a fire that has scorched more than 10,000 acres in the Cleveland National Forest and has forced the evacuation of thousands of residents.

The declaration made state resources available in the efforts to suppress the Holy Fire, which started Monday in the Trabuco Canyon area near the Riverside County line. By Thursday, the fire was no longer active in Orange County but was expanding into Riverside County, where it prompted new evacuation orders.

Although flames appeared to threaten homes in a Lake Elsinore neighborhood on Thursday afternoon, U.S. Forest Service officials said no new structures have been lost or burned after the 12 that were confirmed destroyed during the first day of the fire.

Amid worsening weather conditions, the blaze began creeping over a ridge line around 1:30 p.m. Thursday and burned perilously close to houses on Gateway Drive in the McVicker Canyon Park neighborhood, video from the scene showed.

Crews worked on the ground as an aircraft made drops from above to defend the homes from the encroaching fire.

Further down the road, one resident could be seen on top of a roof, dousing it with a water hose in a desperate effort to stave off the flames.

The McVicker Canyon Park neighborhood was already under a mandatory evacuation order when the fire raced into that area.

On Thursday night, officials said they expected to blaze to continue spreading to the east and north through steep terrain that has been difficult for firefighters to access.

It was burning in an unstable atmosphere that could allow for extreme fire behavior, and would continue impacting communities along the Riverside County foothills, the Forest Service said.

The Riverside County Sheriff's Office has increased patrols in Lake Elsinore and noted that there have thus far been no reports of looting in the city.

More homes evacuated 

By mid-afternoon Thursday, officials issued a new mandatory evacuation order for residents on the mountain side of Lake Street and southwest of Grand Avenue to the Ortega Highway, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Voluntary evacuations also went into effect in the Shorline and Machado communities.

Mandatory evacuations are in place for the following areas: Mayhew/Sycamore Creek, Glen Eden, Horsethief Canyon, Rice Canyon, Rice Lake, McVicker, Machado and South El Cariso. The Ortega Highway corridor has also been evacuated from the Lookout Restaurant to Nichols Institute.

As of Thursday night, nearly 20,500 residents had been asked to evacuate about 7,450 residences, according to the Forest Service.

Lake Elsinore Mayor Natasha Johnson was among those fled their homes, officials said.

Evacuation centers were opened at San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano and Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore.

At a community meeting Thursday evening, representatives from the Southern California Interagency Management team and other agencies urged residents to be prepared and ready to evacuate when orders are issued so firefighters can focus on controlling and containing the fire.

Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez attended Thursday evening's community meeting and said she has asked the governor to declare a state of emergency in Riverside County.

Fire sends smoke across SoCal 

Even those not impacted by the evacuations orders could still feel the effects of the fire, which sent thick plumes into the air that spread for miles and rained down ash on surrounding communities. The sky above Lake Elsinore was ominously tinted orange.

A smoke advisory has been issued for parts of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and officials warned that air quality could reach unhealthy levels in some of those areas.

Children, the elderly and those with heart or respiratory conditions are especially encouraged to limit outdoor activities, use an air filter and possibly even leave the impacted area, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The warning is scheduled to be in effect through at least Friday morning.

Suspect's arraignment postponed 

The wildfire, which erupted Monday in the Trabuco Canyon area and burned across the Riverside County line, exploded to 9,614 acres overnight and remained just 5 percent contained, according to the Cleveland National Forest Service update.

As of 6:30 p.m., officials said the fire had scorched 10, 236 acres.

"You can take that with a grain of salt, as you can see from stepping outside the fire is growing as we speak," Sal Reyes, operations section chief of So Cal Team One, said at the meeting.

Reyes added firefighters are making good progress despite the growth saying, "As the fire grows, our containment remains the same which means that our containment lines are actually growing."

A total of 12 structures, all in the Holy Jim community, were destroyed after flames tore through the area during the first day of the firefight, officials said.

Authorities have arrested a cabin owner from that area on suspicion of arson and believe he set the blaze. Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, was booked Wednesday on two felony counts of arson, one felony count of threat to terrorize and one misdemeanor count of resisting arrest, according to the Forest Service.

Clark was charged Thursday, but his arraignment was delayed after he refused to leave his jail cell to appear in court.

He is being held at the jail in Santa Ana on $1 million bail.

'Dangerous' weather conditions

The fire is being fueled by hot weather and extremely dry brush, which officials say hasn’t burned in about 40 years.

“It can get dangerous,” Cal Fire firefighter Stephen Aldama said about battling the blaze. “We know where our safety zones are. We know where our escape routes are and that’s huge,” Aldama said.

Temperatures in the area were forecast to exceed 100 degrees, while humidity in the area was expected to drop below 15 percent, according to InciWeb.

By mid-afternoon, temperatures in the Lake Elsinore area had hit 106 degrees and winds were blowing with speeds of up to 19 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

The combination "will provide condition for extreme fire behavior as well as heat illness issues for the fire fighters and the public," the website stated.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Tim Chavez noted that the wind got "pretty squirrely" in the fire area Thursday afternoon, and said he believes the blaze may be creating its own weather.

"It's mostly the fire that's causing the wind, I think, because there was hardly any wind all day," Chavez said.

Jacob Carothers, of the U.S. Forest Service, told KTLA efforts to contain the fire would continue after sunset.

"The air tankers are going to be grounded. However, we do have some night-flying helicopters so they are going to try and get into areas where they can see the fire and where there is visibility and drop water," Carothers said.

Ground crews will also conduct burning operations.

"We burn all the unburned material and it will be consumed into the fire itself," Carothers explained. "And that gives you a good  buffer between the fire and the structures."

Schools closed 

Meanwhile, a number of schools in the area have been closed due to fire and smoke.

The Lake Elsinore Unified School District announced on Wednesday that several campuses have been closed until further notice.

The Menifee Union School District was also shutting down until further notice, a public information officer said.