Authorities: Man arrested on arson charge in California fire that has forced 2,800 from homes


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An out-of-control Northern California wildfire has nearly 2,800 people from their homes as it continues to grow, authorities said Thursday. Authorities said a man has been arrested on suspicion of arson for starting the fire on Saturday. (Sept. 18)

A man has been arrested on suspicion of arson in a Northern California wildfire that has driven nearly 2,800 people from their home. (Sept. 18)

Three wildfires in separate parts of California have damaged or destroyed scores of homes and forced hundreds of people to evacuate. (Sept. 16)

Stunned residents of Weed, California assessed the damage of their northern California town Tuesday, after a wildfire destroyed or damaged 100 homes, the saw mill and two churches. (Sept. 16)

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PLACERVILLE, California — 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.

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 Cal Fire. It was 5 percent contained. It closed part of a highway that runs to the Nevada state line near Lake Tahoe.

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."

Many of the 12,000 threatened homes 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.

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.

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. He also secured federal grants to fight each of them.

Meanwhile, farther north in the town of Weed, officials released the final results of their damage assessment from a blaze that tore through the community Monday. City administrator Ron Stock said 143 homes and nine other buildings, including churches, were destroyed.

Officials previously said 110 homes were destroyed and 90 others were damaged.

Stock said he hopes the state will declare the burned debris hazardous waste to speed its removal and defray costs. The state would cover 75 percent of the cost and the city 25 percent if the debris receives that designation.

Residents were expected to be allowed to return to the burned areas once utility crews finished restoring power, water and telephone service.

The cause of the blaze was under investigation. The fire burned 375 acres, and more of half of it was contained.

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

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