Firefighters battle to curb wildfire before winds return

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. (AP) — More than a thousand firefighters battled to keep a raging Southern California forest fire from reaching foothill neighborhoods today before the expected return of blustery winds that drove the flames to new ferocity a day earlier.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency late Thursday for Orange and Riverside counties as the fire carved its way along ridges in the Cleveland National Forest.

Some hillsides were allowed to burn under the watchful eyes of firefighters – to reduce fuel and make it harder for flames to jump roadways into communities when gusts pick up.

The arson blaze south of Los Angeles gained renewed strength Thursday afternoon, coming within yards of homes. Aircraft turned hillsides red with retardant as homeowners sprayed their houses with water from garden hoses.

Hundreds more firefighters joined the effort, bringing the total to 1,200. The fire has blackened 16 square miles of timber and brush and is only 5 percent contained. More than 20,000 people have been evacuated.

Brown's proclamation said thousands of homes were threatened by the fire in the foothills above Lake Elsinore and nearby communities and ordered state agencies to help local governments.

A resident of Holy Jim Canyon in the forest was scheduled for a court hearing today on charges that he deliberately set the fire.

Forrest Clark, 51, is charged with arson and other crimes and could face life in prison if convicted. It wasn't immediately known if he had a lawyer.

Michael Milligan, chief of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, has told the Orange County Register Clark had a decade-long feud with neighbors and sent him threatening emails last week, including one that said, "this place will burn." Ironically, his cabin was the only one in the canyon to survive the flames, the newspaper reported.

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