Holy Jim, devastated by fire, faces specter of vanishing forever

Holy Jim, devastated by fire, faces specter of vanishing forever

CLEVELAND NATIONAL FOREST — It was the moment they’d long feared: The fire came.


Cabins dissolved into ash and ruins.


The remnants of rural life – benches and beer cans and wood-burning stoves – lay charred among the soot and rubble.


It was over quickly, in a matter of hours. But a day later, on Tuesday, the scars remained. The ash blanketed the ground, still warm underfoot. Trees smoldered, dead. In the center of what once were cabins, solitary flames danced, refused to die, not knowing the fire had moved on.


In all, at least 13 cabins burned when the blaze, perhaps started by an arsonist, tore through Monday afternoon, on its way to scorching 4,000 acres of open space in Orange and Riverside counties. For the residents of Holy Jim, a tract of more than 40 cabins deep in the Cleveland National Forest, the destruction is about more than losing possessions, a secluded vacation spot, or property.


It is about the specter of 150 years of history lost, about a community that dates to the 19th century joining its Civil War founders as a relic of the past.


  • Holy Jim volunteer Fire Chief Mike Milligan is keeping an eye on the fire that destroyed at least 13 homes yesterday and is still burning out of control.(Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A fire crew from San Bernardino arrives back in to Holy Jim Canyon on Tuesday, Aug 7, 2018 after the winds shift. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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  • A firefighting helecopter kicks up dust from the parched mountain in Holy Jim Canyon on Tuesday, Aug 7, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Home owner Russ Price is surrounded by smoke, ash, and smoldering homes in Holy Jim Canyon on Tuesday, Aug 7, 2018. He doesn’t know how his structure survived. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Home owner Russ Price is surrounded by smoke, ash, and smoldering homes in Holy Jim Canyon on Tuesday, Aug 7, 2018. He doesn’t know how his structure survived. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A Sheriff deputy walks up the road to a home that was spared Monday’s fire in Holy Jim Canyon. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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“A lot of people I’ve spoken to say they want to rebuild,” said Mike Milligan, the chief of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department and the community’s de-facto patriarch. “But it’s up to the discretion of the Forest Service.”


And it’s unclear – if not unlikely – whether the federal agency would allow them to rebuild.


Map disputed


Holy Jim is in a federally designated flood plain, meaning the community is vulnerable during rainy season.


The most recent map, created in 2014, was done so at the behest of cabin owners. But they were unhappy with the result – federal officials enlarged the flood plain to encompass all of Holy Jim.


And under federal law, any structure in a flood plain that gets destroyed can’t be rebuilt.


“It’s a fraudulent map,” Milligan said Tuesday.


But the Forest Service has repeatedly pushed back against that notion. And though the agency says it does not want to lose Holy Jim, officials say it is a possibility.


Federal laws are also unclear about whether that rule against building applies only to cabins wiped out by floods and mudslides – a common occurrence after fires – or those destroyed during the blazes themselves.


“It’s not a good idea to have anyone residing inside flood areas,” Jacob Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Forest Service, said last year, though he couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.


Holy Jim, however, exists in a natural hearth. The narrow canyon allows fires to shoot through the tract of cabins; those cabins are built from wood at least half-a-century old; and they are surrounded by kindling, a hodgepodge of highly flammable trees and brush that are nearly impossible to keep under control.


So long-time cabin owners, of which there are many, always knew a day would come when Holy Jim would burn.


And come it did.


Knew what to do


On Monday, when the fire started, Milligan was in his office, unaware.


Then he looked out his window and saw smoke.


He knew what to do.


He reached out to his dozen or so volunteer firefighters and then began laying hoses around the cabins.


Milligan, in his 70s, has owned a cabin in Holy Jim for decades. He’s seen numerous infernos, small brush fires and post-blaze mudslides. He’s seen the number of cabins dwindle from 62 to 45.


“Here we go again,” Milligan recalled thinking.


But this fire, he said, was different.


“It just exploded,” he said.


The heat was so intense, Milligan added, that he and his team were unable to reach some of the cabins.


“The paint on the front of engine 62,” Milligan said, “began to bubble.”


And so those cabins were on their own.


Reduced to rubble


Holy Jim, on Tuesday, was quiet.


Milligan, a day after the fire, stood at the department’s headquarters refilling his engines. A few Orange County Sheriff’s deputies were there, as were some firefighters tamping down hot spots.


But there were no hikers. All but two cabin owners had yet to return. There was no sign of the community’s long-time resident peacock.


“Go take a look for yourself,” Milligan said.


Most of the cabins in the fire’s path didn’t make it.


In their place stood rubble. The ash, thick on the floor, looked like snow; it fluttered and fell to the ground with each breeze. The cabins’ stone foundations remained, but little else: A burnt-out water heater here, a fallen door there.


“It’s unbelievable,” said Russ Price, a recent cabin owner, who returned to survey the damage.


But his cabin somehow survived.


“It’s a miracle,” he said.


It’s hard to disagree. At least four cabins surrounding his were gone. Few trees remained alive.


Yet there was Cabin 29, purchased in October, still standing.


“There’s no way it should have survived,” said Brandon Bemis, Price’s friend and co-owner. “Look at all the trees. They should have caught fire and fallen on it.”


Instead, the cabin survived, and the pair were left with guilt.


As Price stood near where his water tank, his lone casualty, used to be, he looked around. His voice broke.


“My poor neighbors,” he said. “I can’t face them.”


Threat remains


Few others returned that day.


But the fire did – or at least threatened to.


Around 1:30 p.m., Milligan, again in his firehouse, put out a cigarette. He bent down and grabbed a ripcord belonging to his strongest water pump. He pulled, then pulled again. And again. And again.


Sweat dripped from Milligan’s nose.


The pump sputtered, but didn’t start.


“Come on,” he said, his voice plaintive. “Why now?”


Smoke just beyond the ridge of Holy Jim Canyon had begun creeping closer. Forest Service firefighters began returning. The winds, Milligan said, had shifted.


Kate Kramer, a private spokeswoman working on behalf of the Forest Service, said Holy Jim was in no danger as of 4 p.m. The fire was creeping back down the mountain away from Holy Jim – causing smoke to mushroom as the flames mixed with retardant.


But Milligan wasn’t so sure. If the wind didn’t shift back, he said, the canyon could again be threatened – and this time, the smoke was closer to the untouched cabins, including his own.


But the engines were full of water. The lines were laid. The volunteer firefighters were on their way. All Milligan could do was hope for the best.




“I’m gonna go home and make a sandwich,” Milligan said. “Then sit and wait.”


Wait, that is, for the fire to try to finish the job.