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Thousands flee Holy Fire

An intentionally set wildfire grew perilously close to homes in Southern California on Thursday as evacuation orders expanded to more than 20,000 residents, though some homeowners stayed behind to fend off the flames themselves.

Firefighters fought a desperate battle to stop the Holy Fire from reaching homes as the blaze surged through the Cleveland National Forest above the city of Lake Elsinore and its surrounding communities. They were trying to keep the flames from devouring neighbourhoods and taking lives, as gigantic fires still burning in Northern California have done.

"Our main focus this afternoon was getting everyone out safely," said Thanh Nguyen, a spokesman for the crews battling the Holy Fire.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Orange and Riverside counties because the fire threatened thousands of homes. The proclamation directs state agencies to provide help to local governments.

As flames raged closer, some residents ignoring evacuation orders stood in driveways or on top of roofs and used garden hoses to keep their homes wet and to fight the flames as smoke billowed around them.

Joe Rodriguez was using a power washer to wet down his patio in the McVicker Canyon Park neighbourhood on Thursday morning.

Although the neighbourhood is under an evacuation order, the 38-year-old Rodriguez told the San Bernardino Sun that he decided to stay to help save his home.

"Until this thing is barking at my door, I'm going to stick with it," he said.

He said a line of fire retardant dropped on the hill above his house has so far checked the fire's advance, along with helicopter water drops.

Rodriguez's wife and two daughters evacuated.

Lake Elsinore Mayor Natasha Johnson and her family were among the families evacuating Thursday, Councilman Bob Magee said at a community meeting about the fire.

Earlier in the day, Johnson told residents in a video posted on Twitter to stay vigilant and listen to evacuation orders.

"Stay safe," she said as smoke billowed behind her. "God bless."

Magee told residents at the community meeting to follow the mayor's example and listen to evacuation warnings and orders.

"I also want to remind you not to panic," he said. "We are in great hands, the best in the world.

"Pray for our town. Pray for our people," he said.

Fire crews worked in 38 C heat. Aircraft dumped bright pink lines of fire retardant to wall off the fire from homes. The 41-square-kilometre blaze was only 5 per cent contained.

The fire is named for Holy Jim Canyon, where it erupted Monday and burned a dozen cabins.

A resident of the canyon, 51-year-old Forrest Gordon Clark, was charged Thursday with arson and other crimes that could send him to prison for life.

Clark refused to go to court Thursday and his arraignment was postponed to Friday. It's unclear whether he has an attorney.



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