Man charged with arson over huge California wildfire

Forrest Gordon Clark (51) accused of setting Holy Jim Fire in Cleveland National Park

A firefighting airplane drops fire retardant at the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore, in Orange County, California. Photograph: David McNewAFP/Getty Images

A firefighting airplane drops fire retardant at the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore, in Orange County, California. Photograph: David McNewAFP/Getty Images

 

A man suspected of intentionally setting fire to a residential area in Southern California has been charged with multiple felony counts involving arson.

Forrest Gordon Clark (51), is accused of setting the Holy Jim Fire in Cleveland National Park, which has grown to nearly 10,000 acres since it began on Monday afternoon and remained just 5 per cent contained as of Thursday, according to the US Forest Service. The wildfire has prompted more than 20,000 evacuations.

Clark, who faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted, was held on bail of $1 million.

No fatalities had been reported in connection to the fire, but at least a dozen homes and other structures have been burned. The role Clark is alleged to have played in the fire has provoked anger and outrage within Orange County and across the state of California, which is experiencing an unprecedented wildfire season that has strained emergency response resources.

The 175,000-acre Carr Fire in Northern California, which remains just 48 percent contained, has wreaked havoc on Shasta County and the town of Redding. The Mendocino Complex Fire, about 150km north of San Francisco, has burned more than 300,000 acres and is already the largest wildfire in the state’s history.

The Ferguson Fire in Mariposa County near Yosemite National Park has led to the continued closing of Yosemite Valley. Ten people have died from the fires in the last four weeks.

The Holy Jim Fire is smaller than those blazes but has threatened thousands of homes in an area. What started as a small fire in the Holy Jim Canyon area has exploded in size, growing overnight Thursday to 9,600 acres from 6,200 acres a day earlier.

Michael Milligan, the Holy Jim volunteer fire chief, told the Orange County Register that Clark displayed erratic behavior and had a long-standing feud with his neighbours. Milligan said Clark had sent him threatening messages predicting Holy Jim would burn down.

The Orange County supervisor, Todd Spitzer, said Wednesday that Clark “needs to suffer the fullest punishment of the law.”