Josh Castro waited until the last minute to escape the massive inferno near his house in Southern California.
Despite mandatory evacuation orders, Castro had stayed behind to protect his Lake Elsinore home from looters, he said. His wife, children and dog had evacuated as the bright orange flames from the Holy Fire swept through the canyon, sending ash and billowing black smoke in his neighborhood.
Then the flames moved up the hill, closer to his backyard, and Castro decided it was time to leave. A sheriff’s deputy banged on his door and told him it will only get worse, and Castro left his home of eight years and joined the line of cars snaking out of Lake Elsinore.
“I don’t know anything about the neighborhood,” Castro said Thursday. “Hopefully I have a house in the morning.”
As night fell Thursday, the Holy Fire had destroyed about a dozen structures since it erupted Monday at the Cleveland National Forest.
In a week, it has scorched 10,236 acres and was 5% contained. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Orange and Riverside counties, where more than 21,000 people are under mandatory evacuation orders.
And authorities said things will only get worse, with the area forecast to have temperatures in the 90s and gusty winds of up to 25 mph.
“These conditions will increase the likelihood of extreme fire behavior as well,” the US Forest Service said.
Forrest Gordon Clark, 51, the man who allegedly started the fire, was charged Thursday with aggravated arson and criminal threats, among other offenses.
Clark was arrested this week on suspicion of setting off the blaze after he allegedly sent a text to a volunteer fire chief two weeks ago saying, “The place is going to burn.”
Footage of the arrest shows the suspect standing in handcuffs without a shirt on as his neighbors’ homes burn nearby.
Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Milligan says he’s known the suspect for decades, and has long warned that he posed a danger to the community.
Milligan said he was so wary of the suspect that he avoided going to the area of the remote Orange County canyon where he lives.
Clark came to his home two weeks ago to return items he said he had “borrowed” from the fire department, Milligan said.
When he told Clark he wanted nothing to do with him, the suspect swore at him and called him a jerk, he said.
The next morning, Milligan said, he got a mysterious text from an unknown number: “911 call sheriff.” Milligan called back and though the reception was poor in the canyon, he recognized Clark’s voice, he said. Later came an expletive-laden text that ended with the ominous warning: “The place is going to burn just like you planned.”