Arson Arrest Made as 10 Wildfires Scorch California; State Emergency Declared
As 10 wildfires raged across California, authorities accused one man Thursday of having deliberately set one of the larger fires that was burning nearly uncontrollably over 111 square miles, officials said.
Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, faces one felony count of arson with a special allegation of a firefighter, peace officer or other emergency personnel having suffered great bodily injury in the so-called King Fire in northern California, according to the criminal complaint.
Huntsman is being held on $10 million bail in El Dorado County Jail, said Sheriff John D’Agostini.
The King Fire in Eldorado National Forest east of Sacramento exploded over a 24-hour period and nearly quadrupled to 73,184 acres Thursday from 18,544 acres a day earlier, authorities said. Evacuations were in effect for 2,819 people as the fire was only 10% contained, officials said. More than 12,000 residences are being threatened by the fire.
Residents reported gargantuan flames.
“Anytime the wind could change. It’s very unnerving to see this huge thing above where your home is, and so we are just down here to keep a close eye on things,” Tara Rosas of the Pollock Pines community told CNN affiliate KCRA.
Flames approach rangers
The fire even threatened a forest-ranger station near Pollock Pines, prompting rangers to turn their attention to defending their own quarters, said one off-duty firefighter who spoke with the foresters.
The smoke lay so thick in the Sierra Nevada mountains that visibility was reduced to 200 feets, said Mike Forster of Oakland, an off-duty firefighter who was doing freelance photography.
“There is nothing but fuel and wilderness in front of it,” Forster said of the fire.
“If you look at it on a map, it’s heading toward Lake Tahoe, which could stop it, but there’s nothing but fuel before it gets there,” said Forster, who posted photos of the fire on his CNN iReport page.
Lake Tahoe is about 50 miles away from the area to which Forster was referring.
$5 million a day
In all, 6,600 firefighters were battling the state’s 10 wildfires, and 150 arson investigators also were working, said Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott.
Fueling the fires is California’s ongoing historic drought. On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state emergency in El Dorado and Siskiyou counties, where the King Fire and another wildfire burned wide swaths of land and destroyed homes.
The King Fire was proving costly to fight, officials said. Exacerbating conditions were steep terrain, changing winds and the fire’s speed, which made a run of more than 10 miles between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday’s dawn.
“We are continuing to spend $5 million a day, and there is no estimate for containment for this fire,” said Laurence Crabtree, Eldorado National Forest supervisor.
“This thing is just out of control at this point,” said CNN international meteorologist Ivan Cabrera.
The Boles Fire
Farther north, in Siskiyou County, near the border with Oregon, a smaller fire has already caused severe damage to property.
The Boles Fire tore into the town of Weed this week, razing libraries, businesses and entire neighborhood blocks, according to CNN affiliate KDRV.
The governor cited the damage by the Boles Fire in his emergency proclamation for the two counties.
The blaze has destroyed at least 150 structures, according to Cal Fire, and crews are still assessing the scale of the damage. About 1,000 homes remain threatened, officials said.
Images from the scene showed charred vehicles and patches of rubble where houses once stood.
That fire, which covers 375 acres, is now 65% contained, but evacuation orders remain in effect for some areas, Cal Fire said.
Authorities say they want to allow people to return to their properties as soon as they can, but only when it’s safe to do so.
“At some point we’re going to have to remove this debris,” local fire official Koby Johns told KDRV. “And before that, we need to, one, make sure there’s nobody here. And two, make sure there’s nothing that’s going to fall and injure a firefighter.”
Announcing a state of emergency in El Dorado and Siskiyou, California Gov. Jerry Brown said, “The wildfires in Northern California serve as a reminder that dry conditions can be the precursor to devastating loss.”
Authorities have said California’s ongoing historic drought has helped fuel fires that have plagued areas across the state.
The causes of the King and Boles fires are still under investigation.
Here’s a summary of other wildfires, as of Friday:
— The Happy Camp Complex Fire in Siskiyou County’s Klamath National Forest burned 130,139 acres and was 72% contained.
— The July Complex Fire in Siskiyou County’s Klamath National Forest and surrounding area charred 50,042 acres and was 98% contained.
— The Meadow Fire in Mariposa County’s Yosemite National Park devastated 4,772 acres and was 90% contained.
— The Boles Fire in Siskiyou County’s city of Weed burned 479 acres and was 95% contained.
— The Courtney Fire in Madera County burned 320 acres and was 90% contained, with 56 structures damaged or destroyed.
— The Irene Fire in Alpine County’s El Dorado National Forest and Mokelumne Wilderness area burned 94 acres and was 45% contained.
— The June Fire in Mono County’s Inyo National Forest scorched 65 acres and was 65% contained.
— The Silverado Fire in Orange County’s Cleveland National Forest and Silverado Canyon area burned 968 acres and was 98% contained.