Man Arrested In Fast-Growing California Wildfire

Taylor Yoakum, 19, looks for family heirlooms in her destroyed home in Weed, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. The blaze damaged or destroyed more than 150 structures, many of them homes. (AP Photo/The Medford Mail Tribune, Jamie Lusch)

Taylor Yoakum, 19, looks for family heirlooms in her destroyed home in Weed, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014. The blaze damaged or destroyed more than 150 structures, many of them homes. (AP Photo/The Medford Mail Tribune, Jamie Lusch)

CAMINO, Calif. — 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 is charged with one count of arson of forest land for willfully and maliciously setting a fire, according to a criminal complaint. He also faces 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.

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.

"It's something that's evolving at this point," Pierson said of the probe.

He did not know whether Huntsman had an attorney.

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.

By Thursday morning, the fire had burned through 111 square miles as winds surged to 25 mph and more than doubled its size overnight, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was 5 percent contained.

"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."

Many of the 12,000 threatened homes were in Pollock Pines, 60 miles east of Sacramento. Though the fire grew substantially late Wednesday, it burned mostly into wilderness land in the El Dorado National Forest away from the town, according to Cal Fire. Crews focused Thursday on clearing brush and building containment lines near threatened communities.

The blaze was burning about 10 miles from the Desolation Wilderness, a popular hiking area south of Lake Tahoe.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency late Wednesday, freeing up funds for the two fires. Brown also had secured federal grants to fight each of them.

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

Meanwhile, farther north in the town of Weed, teams of firefighters went house-to-house Wednesday to survey damage by a wildfire that officials estimated had destroyed 110 homes and damaged another 90. The damage assessment was expected to continue Thursday.

Four firefighters lost their homes. 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.

The cause of the blaze that rapidly swept across town was under investigation. It was 65 percent contained after burning 375 acres.
By FENIT NIRAPPIL and SUDHIN THANAWALA — Sep. 18, 2014 3:50 PM EDTAP

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Thanawala reported from San Francisco.

 
 

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