Brown Declares State of Emergency As Holy Fire Burns Where 6 Firefighters Were Killed 59 Years Ago

Air tankers and water-dropping helicopters battle the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. This image was taken from Santiago Peak. (Photo by the Orange County Fire Authority via Twitter).

The Holy Fire, which has burned at least 10,000 acres since igniting Monday afternoon, remains only 5 percent contained. Crews are having a hard time getting trucks and other equipment into this area of Orange County near Lake Elsinore.

Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency declaration for Orange and Riverside Counties on Thursday as the fire threatened homes and led to mandatory evacuations of neighborhoods. That proclamation came as dramatic video and images of flames getting ever closer to Lake Elsinore was captured by news crews and homeowners.

Thanh Nguyen, a spokesperson for the Holy Fire, explains what's making it so difficult to battle this blaze: "It's still hot and that terrain that we're working in is steep and it's got drainages that act like funnels for the fire. On top of it, we have strong downdrafts that come off the mountain that push the fire aggressively downhill."
This screenshot from a USCD camera captured the Holy Fire on the night of Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (Courtesy of HPWREN)

At a packed community meeting Thursday night streamed by fire officials on Facebook, firefighters told residents to take the current acreage estimates with a grain of salt since "you just look outside and you can see the fire's growing." At that meeting, authorities also told resident they should be ready to evacuate.

And despite rumors of looters, officials said they haven't had any reports yet and have teams out on patrol.

Fire officials also addressed other rumors:

The remote locale and steep canyons make it a supremely dangerous area when fires do flare up — something that firefighters and longtime residents know all too well.


WHERE TO GET UPDATES ON THE HOLY FIRE


It was 59 years ago this week that six firefighters — including three members of the El Cariso Hotshots — died battling the Decker Fire, which roared through the precise area currently being scorched by the Holy Fire. Since then, firefighting equipment and techniques have improved by leaps and bounds but the terrain hasn't changed.

Today that geography is proving to be as much of a challenge for crews as it was for the firefighters who faced down the Decker Fire.

"It's very tough on crews on the ground and it's very difficult to access with engines in some places," said Steve Rasmussen, who works with an interagency team managing the Holy Fire. "Yesterday was the anniversary of the Decker Fire. That's what these firefighters are dealing with. The terrain is very difficult to navigate and fight fire on."

Air tankers and water-dropping helicopters battle the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. This image was taken from Santiago Peak. (Photo by the Orange County Fire Authority via Twitter).

Most of what we know about the tragedy of the Decker Fire comes from this report.

Around 6:40 p.m. on the evening of August 8, 1959, 25-year-old John Guthrie and his five-person firefighting crew were driving along the Ortega Highway toward the Decker Fire. By then the fire was about 40 minutes old. It started after a couple of teens who had been drinking and partying at a nearby campground lost control of a pickup truck as they were driving down the Ortega Highway toward Elsinore. The truck plunged over an embankment and burst into flames, igniting the brush.

Guthrie was behind the wheel of a tanker with a 500-gallon capacity. He pulled off at a hairpin turn, got out and started down a steep bank to get a better look at the fire below.

He raced back up to the truck and told his crew to get into the cab and drive farther up the road. There wasn't room for Guthrie in the cab so he remained outside. According to the report, he planned to use the tanker's hose to wet himself down for protection. Suddenly, a wind shift turned the flames against the firefighters and a "wall of flames engulfed the truck and its occupants." Guthrie dove under the truck for protection.

Two of the crew members received serious burns to their arms and hands. Three others had lesser injuries. Guthrie was burned over 85 percent of his body. He was rushed to Hemet Hospital, stabilized and then transferred to a hospital in Redlands. He died five weeks later, on September 14, leaving behind his wife and two young children.

It was the first of three "burn-overs" that would kill five more men who were fighting the Decker Fire.

That sad story should give you some idea of the tough terrain Holy Fire crews are currently facing. They're also dealing with temperatures in the 90s and 100s.

Nearly 700 people and 60 engines are fighting the fire on the ground but because it's hard to get engines into the steep canyones, officials are relying on air support, specifically two dozen water-dropping helicopters and air tankers. "We rely heavily on our air resources," Rasmussen says. He's hoping they can slow the flames and give ground crews a chance to attack the fire.

Fortunately, the Holy Fire hasn't been racing through the canyons the way the Decker Fire did.

"It's actually not moving fast, it's just constant," Rasmussen says. "It's still always moving forward. It's not necessarily running. It's just a steady movement east."

Until Thursday, evacuations had been limited to canyon areas. Authorities have now issued both mandatory and voluntary evacuations for neighborhoods close to the lake.

"In the Lake Elsinore region, [the firefighters] are going to have to monitor extra close, because they may get wind changes just within a couple miles in the area," Alex Tardy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego, told KPCC/LAist.

More images of the firefighting efforts:

Air tankers and water-dropping helicopters battle the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. This image was taken from Santiago Peak. (Photo by the Orange County Fire Authority via Twitter).

Air tankers and water-dropping helicopters battle the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. This image was taken from Santiago Peak. (Photo by the Orange County Fire Authority via Twitter).

UPDATES:

10:15 p.m. Image added of fire from HPWREN camera.

9:55 p.m.: This story updates with tweet from fire officials that Holy Fire is not currently burning toward Orange County.

9:04 p.m.: This story was updated with Brown's declaration and new information about the fire from the community meeting.

This story originally published at 3:41 p.m.

All Things Considered producer Megan Erwin contributed to this report.


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