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Crews scramble to keep flames from reaching homes south of LA

Forrest Clark is accused of setting the fire.
Forrest Clark is accused of setting the fire.

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — Firefighters worked Friday to keep a growing Southern California forest fire that is feeding on dry brush and trees from reaching foothill neighborhoods a day after flames roared to new ferocity and came within yards of homes.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency 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 supervision of firefighters as a way to reduce fuel and make it harder for flames to jump roadways into communities if winds pick up again.

Aircraft dropped liquid that suppresses flames as people sprayed their houses with water from garden hoses when the blaze south of Los Angeles flared again Thursday evening, propelled by 20-mile-per-hour gusts.

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Hundreds more firefighters joined the battle, bringing the total to 1,200. The so-called Holy fire has chewed through 28 square miles of dense chaparral and is only partly contained.

Forrest Clark, the man accused of deliberately setting that fire, made an initial appearance in a jail courtroom on Friday

The Holy Fire is one of nearly 20 blazes across the state, which is seeing earlier, longer, and more destructive wildfire seasons because of drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change, and home construction deeper into forests.

Firefighters aided by cooler weather have made good progress against a blaze burning for nearly a month near Yosemite National Park in the northern part of the state. The park will reopen Tuesday after a two-week closure, park spokesman Scott Gediman said Friday.

The scenic Yosemite Valley, 350 campsites, and all the park hotels have been closed since July 25. Officials also declared a half-dozen other sites off-limits, including the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, Tunnel View (a scenic spot on California Route 41), and Glacier Point Road.

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Officials also gained more control over two other major Northern California wildfires, including the largest in recorded state history.

In the south, Cleveland National Forest officials tweeted that the flames outside Los Angeles are growing as fast as crews can build lines to contain them.

‘‘We continue to actively engage, but cannot get ahead of the fire,’’ the statement said.

Teresita Reyes was among some 20,000 people forced to leave, saying she was attending a wedding Wednesday when she received the order. The 51-year-old state health inspector congratulated the couple and left quietly to head back to her house in the city of Lake Elsinore and grab important documents.

Since then, Reyes and her husband have been staying at a hotel with a faulty air conditioner while their three dogs and cat are holed up at the family’s plumbing business.

‘‘It is nerve-racking and unreal,’’ she said. ‘‘We were on pins and needles for a little while there because it got real close.’’

Officials have said the fire was deliberately set.

Clark, 51, a resident of the small community of Holy Jim Canyon in the national forest, has been charged with arson and other crimes.

During his court appearance Friday, Clark made several outbursts, claiming that his life was being threatened. A court commissioner postponed his arraignment until Aug. 17 and ordered bail to remain at $1 million. ‘‘May I pay for that immediately?’’ asked Clark, who could face life in prison if convicted.

At one point, Clark covered his face with his long hair and later he stared directly at the camera providing a video feed to reporters outside the courtroom.

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Michael Milligan, chief of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, has told the Orange County Register that Clark had a decadelong feud with neighbors and sent him threatening e-mails last week, including one that said, ‘‘This place will burn.’’

The fire — named for the canyon where it started — destroyed a dozen cabins after it broke out Monday.