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Man Arrested In Fast-Growing Wildfire In Northern California

Firefighters battle the flames from the King fire near Fresh Pond, which is east of Sacramento, Sept. 17, 2014.
Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
Firefighters battle the flames from the King fire near Fresh Pond, which is east of Sacramento, Sept. 17, 2014.

A man has been charged with deliberately starting a Northern California wildfire that has shown explosive growth and driven nearly 2,800 people from their homes, authorities said Thursday.

Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, was arrested late Wednesday in Placerville and booked into El Dorado County Jail, where he was being held on $10 million bail.

Huntsman faces a forest-land arson charge, along with a special allegation of arson with aggravating factors because the blaze east of Sacramento put a dozen firefighters in serious danger, forcing them to deploy their fire shields. They all escaped unharmed.


Called the King fire, the blaze east of Sacramento had burned through 111 square miles, up from 44 square miles Wednesday, as winds surged to 25 mph and continued to fuel its rapid expansion throughout the night, according to Cal Fire. It was 5 percent contained.

District Attorney Vern Pierson declined to say what led investigators to Huntsman, who was scheduled to be arraigned Friday. He also would not comment on a possible motive in the case, saying the investigation was ongoing. Investigators were in contact with Hunstman before his arrest.

"It's something that's evolving at this point," Pierson said of the investigation. He did not know whether Huntsman had an attorney.

Huntsman's sister, Tami Criswell, said she doubts her brother started the fire, but if he did, it wasn't on purpose. He works odd jobs in construction and security, she said.

"He's a really good guy," Criswell said. "He would never do anything intentionally to hurt anybody."


In 1997, Huntsman was convicted in Santa Cruz of three felonies including assault with a deadly weapon and car theft, according to the complaint. In 2003, he was convicted in Plumas County of receiving stolen property.

The blaze, which started Saturday, has been fueled by heavy timber and grass that is extremely dry because of California's third straight year of drought. It is costing $5 million a day to fight, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials said.

"It is extreme fire behavior," said Michelle Eidam, a captain with the Sacramento fire department who was helping with the blaze. "All bets are off right now because this fire is so volatile."

Crews focused Thursday on clearing brush and building containment lines near threatened communities as they braced for more erratic winds.

Fire officials said there were no reports of damaged or destroyed homes. Still, residents at an evacuation center said they were worried.

"We've been doing a lot of praying," said Sally Dykstra, who lives in a home in the middle of the fire area with her husband, Garry, 74, and her daughter, Stacie, 46.

Another resident, Alison Abels, 58, left her home voluntarily Monday and said her thoughts were with firefighters on the front lines.

"I'm on the verge of possibly losing everything, but they are only things. Buildings are property, but people are out there fighting to protect our property and to contain it," she said.

Many of the more than 2,000 threatened homes in the King fire were in Pollock Pines, 60 miles east of Sacramento. Though the fire grew substantially late Wednesday and into the night, it burned mostly into wilderness land in the El Dorado National Forest away from the town, according to Cal Fire.

The blaze was burning about 20 miles from the Desolation Wilderness, a popular hiking area south of Lake Tahoe. It closed part of a highway that runs to the Nevada state line near Lake Tahoe.

Rain was possible in the area Thursday, though more gusty, erratic winds also were expected, and there was a chance of lightning.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency late Wednesday, freeing up funds for the fire along with one burning in Weed, near the Oregon border. He also had secured federal grants to fight each of them.

In Weed, teams of firefighters went house-to-house Wednesday to survey damage from the wildfire, dubbed the Boles fire, that officials estimated had destroyed 110 homes and damaged another 90. The damage assessment was expected to continue Thursday.

Four firefighters lost their homes in the blaze that started Monday afternoon. Two churches, a community center and the library also burned to the ground, while an elementary school and the city's last wood-products mill were damaged by flames that were pushed by 40 mph winds.

Insurance companies worked to find places to live for the people who lost their homes.

The cause of the blaze that rapidly swept across the town was under investigation. It was 65 percent contained after burning 375 acres.

Charred neighborhoods remained off-limits, but people were finding ways in.

The Rev. Bill Hofer, pastor of Weed Berean Church, said power was back on in his home, which was still standing on the edge of the devastation zone, and he planned to return — despite an evacuation order — to deter vandalism. "The more people home with the lights on, the better," he said.

Thanawala reported from San Francisco. Scott Smith in Fresno, Calif., Judith Ausuebel in New York and Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., contributed to this report.

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