Home Fire News Arson-sparked fire explodes, more than 20K people forced to flee

Arson-sparked fire explodes, more than 20K people forced to flee

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SANTA ANA — Forrest Gordon Clark, accused of igniting the still-raging Holy fire, refused to leave his jail cell for his first court appearance on Thursday, so an Orange County Superior Court commissioner postponed the arraignment until Friday.

Clark, 51, who owns a cabin in Holy Jim Canyon, is suspected of sending an email last week — “this place will burn down” — and then on Monday setting off the blaze that has so far burned more than 9,000 acres in Orange and Riverside counties.

Among the six felonies the Orange County District Attorney’s Office filed against him on Thursday: arson of inhabited property, criminal threats and resisting an officer.

If convicted of all six, he could face life in prison.

Fire and law enforcement officials have said that the Holy fire was an intentional act, although they have declined to comment on exactly how it was ignited.

With the fire still burning, additional charges could be filed against Clark, who was being held in lieu of $1 million bail.

“The investigation is still open, because we still aren’t sure where the fire is going to go, what it is going to do,” Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Kirk said. “A fire of this magnitude has the potential to impact a lot of lives, a lot of people and property and a lot of forest.”

While the District Attorney’s Office is coordinating prosecution with the FBI, the case is currently being handled in state, rather than federal, court.

The criminal threats charges are related to a verbal threat Clark is accused of making during a confrontation with a neighbor, Kirk said. The prosecutor said the neighbor dispute has “a lot to do with this case,” but declined to comment further.

The resisting charges are related to incidents on Monday, the day the fire broke out, and Tuesday, according to the criminal complaint. It isn’t clear if they stem from Clark’s interactions with law enforcement or with firefighters.

Kirk acknowledged that it is possible Clark’s arraignment could be delayed again if he once again refuses to leave his cell on Friday. The judge, along with jail officials at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, would decide whether to force him to attend a hearing.

In a Wednesday news conference, Orange County Fire Authority officials said their “strongest evidence is witness statements,” but also mentioned physical evidence found at Clark’s cabin, which was spared by the flames.

Mike Milligan, the chief of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, said he has had multiple run-ins with Clark over the years and has called U.S. Forest Service law enforcement on him as recently as last week.

“If anyone would have listened to me for 10 years,” Milligan said, “this wouldn’t have happened.”

Milligan said Clark moved to the area sometime in the late 1990s. His presence has been sporadic. Clark had been gone for about a year until returning three weeks ago, Milligan said.

About two weeks ago, Clark had a public spat with a neighbor on his front yard, the fire chief said, and then, last week, Clark sent him that message saying Holy Jim would burn. Milligan said he forwarded that message to the U.S. Forest Service.

On Wednesday evening, Pete Anderson returned to the cabin he’s owned since 2009. Ash and rubble were all that remained.

Clark’s cabin was within eyesight.

Anderson, whose permanent residence is in Newport Beach, said he had a couple of run-ins with Clark, but didn’t want to provide details. But he said he wasn’t surprised when Clark’s name came up as a suspect in the fire.

“The courts will decide if he started the fire,” Anderson said. “But it was clear at times that he needed help.”

(c)2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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