National News

Man Charged With Arson in Southern California Fire

Posted August 9, 2018 10:18 p.m. EDT
Updated August 9, 2018 10:24 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — Amid a historic wildfire season, a man suspected of intentionally setting fire to the small residential area where he lived in Southern California was charged Thursday with multiple felony counts involving arson. His charges could carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The man, Forrest Gordon Clark, is accused of setting the Holy Jim Fire in Cleveland National Forest, which has grown to nearly 10,000 acres since it began on Monday afternoon and remained just 5 percent contained as of Thursday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The wildfire has prompted more than 20,000 evacuations and threatened more than 7,000 homes.

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.

While wildfires occur throughout the West every year, scientists see the influence of climate change in the extreme heat waves that have contributed to the intensity of fires this summer. Prolonged periods of abnormally high temperatures are a signal of a shifting climate, they say.

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. At one point the blaze prompted nearly 40,000 evacuations and has burned more than 1,000 homes to become the sixth most destructive fire in the state’s history.

The Mendocino Complex Fire, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, has burned more than 300,000 acres and, just 50 percent contained, 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. Hot temperatures in the area and very low humidity have exacerbated the fire, which nearly 700 fire service workers are involved in fighting.

The fire has spilled over the Orange County line into Riverside County.

Footage of Clark being arrested captured by a local CBS affiliate station showed him standing outside his home shirtless and in handcuffs, while the other homes around his burned. At one point during the arrest, Clark began stripping the rest of his clothing, which was also captured in news photographs.

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 neighbors. Milligan said Clark had sent him threatening messages predicting Holy Jim would burn down.

The Orange County supervisor, Todd Spitzer, said Wednesday during a news conference announcing the arrest that Clark “needs to suffer the fullest punishment of the law.”

“We know this district burns, but it should never burn because of an intentional act. This shouldn’t be called the Holy Jim fire, it should be called the Holy Hell fire,” he said.

“This is a monster,” he added.

Little is known about a potential motive at this point, but public records show Clark has had several unspecified run-ins with law enforcement.

More than half a million fires are set by arsonists each year in the United States, according to a report by the U.S. Fire Administration, resulting in $3 billion in damage. Nearly 1 in 4 fires set between 2010 and 2014 were arson, according to data by the Interior Department.