A squadron of planes and helicopters battles the destructive Holy fire, with signs of success
By RUBEN VIVES AND ALENE TCHEKMEDYIAN | Los Angeles Times | Published: August 11, 2018
LOS ANGELES, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Firefighters pounded the Holy fire by air Friday as the blaze continued to threaten thousands of Riverside County homes.
The fire has destroyed at least 12 structures, but the U.S. Forest Service said that no additional homes had been lost as the flames spread.
On Friday night, officials said the fire had grown slightly to 19,107 acres, but containment jumped from 5% to 10%.
About 1,000 firefighters are on the scene, and more crews and aircraft continue to pour into the area. Residents cheered as plane after plane dropped water and retardant in the fire zone in an all-out air assault.
A squadron of 12 fixed-wing planes and 14 helicopters are pounding the fire.
The hot conditions and unpredictable weather have made it difficult for firefighters to get ahead of the blaze. But they have one big advantage in easy access to water from Lake Elsinore, which they have used for repeated air drops. The short distance from the lake has proved a key factor in tamping down the flames.
"If you have to travel a long distance you risk allowing the fire to regrow," said Thanh Nguyen, public information officer for the fire effort.
Air bombardments occurred both day and night. They were halted for a short time Thursday night because of poor visibility. At least one aircraft had to make an emergency landing in San Bernardino on Friday after striking a bird.
"The air operations have been relentless," Nguyen said. "When we drop so many gallons of water, we're doing it to overwhelm the heat with the coolness of the water."
Ana Tran and a friend had fled Tran’s McVicker Canyon home Thursday, rushing to their car and speeding past firefighters who were heading toward the blaze. Thick black smoke billowed above homes, and cars were blanketed in pinkish fire retardant.
The residents, like many others, made a frantic escape after winds picked up in Lake Elsinore and pushed the fire within feet of homes. More than 20,000 residents were urged to leave.
When Tran returned to her neighborhood, she found her home — still standing — under a smoky sky.
“It feels like a war zone,” she said, ash collecting on her forehead as she snapped photos of flames igniting behind a row of homes on Woodbridge Street near Crest Drive.
“I don’t even recognize the neighborhood,” added her friend, Bao Vinh.
A mile or so away, Apolonio Escalante and his wife walked around scanning the aftermath of the fire that had swept through their Rice Canyon neighborhood. Hundreds of homes sit across from the canyons; some are snuggled deeper in the terrain. The fire left trees stripped bare, everything black. Street signage was damaged.
Before the fire came through, Escalante said, he’d been at his construction job when his wife called with an urgent request: Get home, flames are nearby.
The couple loaded valuables and corralled their 6-year-old German shepherd, Muñeca, into a dog crate and put her onto the bed of their truck. Then they got the hoses out, watching flames rise 40 to 100 feet high.
“We were watering everything,” his wife, Josefina Escalante, said. “It looked like someone had poured gasoline on the fire. … It took off.”
The fire had burned close to Rice Canyon Elementary School, but the campus did not appear damaged. The Escalantes said their home has water, power and gas, so they won’t have to find shelter elsewhere.
Prosecutors on Thursday filed several charges against a man suspected of setting the blaze.
In an interview with a reporter before his arrest, Forrest Clark, 51, said he had no idea how the fire started. “I was asleep. I had two earplugs in,” Clark said, according to a video obtained by KABC-TV Channel 7.
The Trabuco Canyon resident faces one felony count each of aggravated arson of five or more inhabited structures, arson of inhabited property, arson of forest and criminal threats, and two felony counts of resisting an executive officer.
If convicted, Clark faces a maximum sentence of life in state prison.
Meanwhile, the Lake Elsinore Unified School District announced that the start of the school year, set for Monday, would be postponed a week, until Aug. 20.
In Los Angeles County, two men were charged with setting a separate brush fire near the Morris Dam, a reservoir in the San Gabriel Mountains. Christopher Paul Ortega, 20, of Glendora, and Santino Francisco Gnaulati, 21, of Covina, each face one felony count of arson of a structure or forest.
Sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors say the men, who have pleaded not guilty, started the fire near Highway 39 in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Glendora early Tuesday. Firefighters quickly got a handle on the blaze, which burned a quarter of an acre.
If convicted, Ortega and Gnaulati face up to six years in state prison. They are due back in court later this month.
Early Friday morning, Tera Swick stood in the front yard of her Lake Elsinore home, her arms behind her head, watching the flames coming down the mountain.
“I don’t even know which way to watch,” she said.
Only two hours earlier the fire had seemed to slow, moving away from the neighborhood.
But now ash was falling and the wind was picking up.
A truck loaded with motorbikes and other valuables stood running on Nottingham Way, slowing the movement of firetrucks.
“That guy has to move his truck,” Swick said.
Two minutes later, a man came running toward the vehicle, apologizing and moving the truck.
Swick and her mother and brother-in-law sat by the driveway waiting for authorities to force them to leave.
She and her family praised the firefighting aircraft.
“They’re just amazing,” she said. “We’re cheering them on every time they’re making drops.”
Firefighters are battling nearly 20 fires across the state, and officials on Friday announced new progress.
Yosemite Valley will reopen to visitors at 9 a.m. Tuesday after being closed for 20 days because of the Ferguson fire. The National Park Service also announced Friday that the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias will reopen at 9 a.m. Monday.
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