Hearing set for man accused of starting huge fire
PLACERVILLE, Calif. (AP) -- Higher humidity Friday helped slow the growth of a massive Northern California wildfire that authorities say was set deliberately and has forced some 2,800 people to evacuate.
The wind-whipped wildfire 60 miles east of Sacramento has burned through nearly 120 square miles of timber and vegetation east of Sacramento and was just 10 percent contained.
Fire officials said Friday it had burned multiple structures in the White Meadow area of Pollock Pines. Crews were assessing the damage and might know later in the day how many structures were affected, fire information officer Mike McMillan said.
Some of the structures are likely homes and probably burned in the past day or two, he said.
The man suspected of starting the blaze, meanwhile, was set to be arraigned later in the day on an arson charge. Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, was jailed in El Dorado County on $10 million bail following his arrest on Wednesday.
The fire grew overnight but not nearly as substantially as it did Thursday, when it more than doubled in size. Higher humidity helped control the fire's growth, though winds could be a factor in the evening, fire officials said.
"Things are looking better as far as the fire activity and our containment," McMillan said.
Still, those near the fire said it was powerful and dangerous. Nearly 4,500 firefighters were battling the blaze, which was threatening 12,000 homes.
"There are a lot of firefighters saying that this fire is producing fire conditions unlike anything that they have ever seen," Cal Fire Battalion Chief Joe Tyler said at a community meeting Thursday night. "It's creating its own weather overhead."
Huntsman faces a forest arson charge, along with a special allegation of arson with aggravating factors because the blaze 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 to Huntsman's arrest this week in Placerville.
"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. Criswell said her brother, who has worked in construction and private security, loves being in the forest and always was cautious with campfires.
"He's a really good guy," Criswell said. "He would never do anything intentionally to hurt anybody."
Yet, Santa Cruz authorities have a $5,000 warrant out for Huntsman stemming from a February 2013 arrest for resisting or obstructing a public officer. Officials said he has missed several court dates.
His arrest record in Santa Cruz dates back to 1996, according to court records. That year he was convicted of tampering with a vehicle, auto theft, driving under the influence, grand theft and assault with a deadly weapon, which resulted in a three-year sentence. He was sent to San Quentin State Prison.
In 2003, he was convicted in Plumas County of receiving stolen property, according to the latest complaint.
The blaze, which started Saturday, has been fueled by heavy timber and grass that is extremely dry because the state is in its third year of drought.
Residents at an evacuation center said they were worried about their homes.
"We've been doing a lot of praying," said Sally Dykstra, who lives in the middle of the fire area with her husband, Garry, 74, and her daughter, Stacie, 46.
Farther north in the town of Weed, 143 homes and nine other buildings were destroyed, according to final damage assessments released Thursday. Residents were expected to be allowed to return to the burned areas once utility crews finished restoring power, water and telephone service.
Thanawala reported from San Francisco. Raquel Maria Dillion in Placerville, Scott Smith in Fresno, Calif., Judith Ausuebel in New York and Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., contributed to this report.