Firefighters raced from street to street late Thursday in Lake Elsinore neighborhoods, successfully fighting back flames as winds pushed the expanding Holy fire perilously close to homes.
The blaze, possibly sparked by an arsonist Monday, has raced through more than 10,000 acres of thick brush and timber in Orange and Riverside counties, prompting evacuations, closing roads and shuttering some local schools while fouling the air and casting ominous clouds of dark smoke over the region.
In Lake Elsinore, the battle Thursday moved along several streets – Sandpiper Drive, Crystal Ridge Court, Edgewood Drive, N. Crest Drive, Lincoln Street, Dale Court and McVicker Canyon Park Road, for a few.
Some 700 firefighters, fire engines and aircraft dropping retardant and water took on the streets. The trucks parked in driveways, and crews ran hoses into backyards to fight off walls of flames climbing up hillsides.
Don Sperline, 64, a resident of Crystal Ridge Court, watched as firefighters repelled the flames.
“It was like a blast furnace when it came,” he said.
Homes weren’t all that were defended
The afternoon fire burned near Rice Canyon Elementary and even the McVicker Park Fire Station as well as adjacent McVicker Park used as a staging Area for law-enforcement and firefighters.
All were spared.
No homes were reported damaged by flames Thursday. Twelve structures, higher up in the mountains, have burned since the fire started Monday.
Thanh Nguyen, a spokesman for Holy incident commanders, credited the teamwork of meteorologists, fire-behavior analysts and firefighters for saving the homes.
“The bottom line is we anticipated it. They got ahead of it,” Nguyen said.
The blaze grew to 10,236 acres Thursday and containment remained at 5 percent. Containment is the percentage of the fire’s perimeter that firefighters have determined the blaze will no long spread beyond
Above the neighborhoods, hand crews climbed steep terrain like herds of mountain goats to dig fire breaks. But high winds caused embers to start new fires. Those winds are the result of thunderstorms outside the fire area.
Those thunderstorms brought erratic winds Thursday that pushed flames in unpredictable directions. Those same storms are expected this weekend to bring the promise of higher humidity — a weather condition that should help slow the flames, Nguyen said.
A difficult firefight was expected Thursday night and Friday, Nguyen said, as flames continue to move downhill on three different fronts, into Horsethief Canyon, McVickers Canyon and El Cariso Village. McVickers, where the fire was especially aggressive Thursday, will be a point of emphasis Friday.
New mandatory evacuations were ordered Thursday afternoon.
Just after 2 p.m., the Cleveland National Forest ordered residents of the mountainside of Lake Street, as well as those living in the area southwest of the area spanning Grand Avenue to Ortega Highway, to evacuate.
At 3:30 p.m., voluntary evacuations were announced for the Shoreline community.
Just after 5 p.m., the Lake Street offramps on the 15 Freeway were closed.
— Cleveland NF (@ClevelandNF) August 9, 2018
Also Thursday, Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency in Riverside and Orange counties, a proclamation that will allow them to receive disaster assistance from the state. The order also waives fees for replacing vehicle records such as licenses and registrations destroyed by fire, and it eliminates the one-week waiting period for applying for unemployment benefits for those who have lost their job because of the fire.
The flames and poor air quality prompted several Riverside County school districts to close schools Thursday; some will also be closed on Friday.
“(O)ut of an abundance of caution, and because of mandatory evacuations in specific neighborhoods affected by the Holy fire, the following Lake Elsinore Unified School District schools will be closed until further notice: Luiseño School, Rice Canyon Elementary, Terra Cotta Middle School, and Withrow Elementary,” the district said on its website.
All of the schools in the Perris Elementary School District, the Perris Union High School District, the Menifee Union School District, and the Romoland School District, as well as Santa Rosa Academy, closed Thursday. The Menifee district said its schools would also be closed Friday. All Menifee elementary school back-to-school nights have been rescheduled to Aug. 23.
Thursday was slated to be Romoland’s first day of school.
Voluntary evacuation orders were issued for the community of Machado near Lake Elsinore, according to a Twitter post from the Cleveland National Forest.
The Holy fire, named for its ignition point in Holy Jim Canyon, has prompted authorities to issue mandatory evacuation orders for the Lake Elsinore-area communities of:
- Rice Canyon
- Horsethief Canyon
- Glen Eden
- McVickers CanyonEl Cariso Village
- Sycamore Creek
- Rancho Capistrano
- Holy Jim Canyon
- Trabuco Canyon
- The Ortega Highway corridor from the Grand Avenue in Riverside County to Nichols Institute in Orange County
Despite the evacuation orders, several people in the Lake Elsinore communities remained home watching the flames as they came closer.
Former firefighter Josh Keifer, 36, remained at his home but packed his trailer and said he was ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
He said he is a former U. S. Forest Service firefighter and his assignments included the Cleveland National Forest — the area burning over the back of his house.
“I’ve done structure protection. I know what to do and I know when to get out,” he said. His fifth-wheeler parked in front of his home was hooked up and ready to go.
“I know the terrain pretty well. I just did it for so long — you just never forget,” Kiefer said.
The fire had burned down to the red line of retardant dropped Wednesday to protect the area.
“It will burn,” Kiefer said of the retardant-coated brush and oak trees. “But it just takes longer to start. The embers are what you have to worry about — they can blow a mile-and-half.”
In the evacuated McVicker Canyon Park neighborhood in Lake Elsinore, Joe Rodriguez, 38, decided to stay put in his home, which backs up against the burning hillside. “Until that thing is barking at my door, I’m going to stick with it,” he said.
Rodriguez said he is an experienced hang glider pilot familiar with the area’s fire country. “I fly over this 300 hours a year.”
He also said the line of fire retardant dropped on the hill above his house has so far checked the fire’s advance – aided by a helicopter water drop earlier Thursday morning.
Rodriguez said his wife and two daughters have evacuated. On Thursday morning he was going over his patio with a power washer – not for fire prevention but to wash off the fire retardant before it stained.
Fire authorities have advised against residents waiting until the last minute to evacuate because it could cause traffic concerns especially in neighborhoods with winding and narrow roads. Tips on making an evacuation plan are available at ReadyForWildfire.org.
As residents are trying to flee, larger fire trucks could be trying to get in causing congestion.
— Richard K. De Atley (@RKDeAtley) August 9, 2018
— GlenEden SunClub (@GlenEdenSunClub) August 8, 2018
Skydiving planes rerouted
It was mostly business as usual Thursday at Skydive Elsinore. Daniella Martin, the operations manager, refuted claims made on social media that skydivers were interfering with aerial firefighting operations.
The airfield is south of the lake, whereas the fire is burning to the north. Planes that normally would take off to the north are now launching to the south because of the fire, Martin said. She added that she heard from fire officials Thursday thanking Skydive Elsinore for its cooperation.
But some callers to the facility have been cursing at office staff and claiming that the skydivers “are as bad as the arsonist,” Martin said.
Nguyen, the incident commanders’ spokesman, said the presence of skydivers was “a non-issue.”
Also Thursday, Lake Elsinore Mayor Natasha Johnson sought to dispel what she said were rumors of robbery and looting in the evacuation areas.
“I personally was in a patrol car from 9:45 p.m. until almost 2 a.m. (Thursday) morning. There were a few calls for reported burglaries, all unfounded,” she wrote on her Facebook page, Natasha Johnson Lake Elsinore Mayor. “According to our sheriff’s department, this morning I have confirmed no arrests were made in any of the evacuation areas.”
The Sheriff’s Department confirmed that there has been no looting and that it has increased its presence in the neighborhoods.
— Cleveland NF (@ClevelandNF) August 9, 2018
Unusual fire behavior
More than five decades ago, firefighters gave the unusual fire behavior in the area a name: the Elsinore effect, which explains why flames of the Holy Fire are burning downhill from Orange County. This phenomenon was explained in a report titled “The dynamics of catastrophe — the Decker wildland fire of 1959.“
Flames tend to burn quickly uphill, but not downhill. Not so in Lake Elsinore, according to the report. Marine air from the Pacific Ocean flows east over the Santa Ana Mountains and down through the northeast-facing canyons and drainage basins, pushing flames downhill. This movement of air typically ends around sundown as areas to the east cool, causing the flames to reverse direction and begin to burn back uphill.
The report described ferocious firestorms in Lake Elsinore that killed six firefighters and injured about 45 more out of a firefighting force of 500 in the 1959 fire.
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