PLACERVILLE, Calif. – Thousands of firefighters kept a huge and still-growing wildfire from burning homes in Northern California while a man with a long criminal history faced charges of deliberately starting the blaze that drove some 2,800 people from their homes, authorities said.
The wind-whipped wildfire had burned through 119 square miles of timber and vegetation east of Sacramento as of Friday morning and was just 10 percent contained but had yet to damage or destroy any homes or buildings, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The fire grew overnight, but not nearly as substantially as it did on Thursday, when it more than doubled in size. Crews fighting the blaze were expecting lighter winds on Friday.
But those near the fire say it is powerful and dangerous.
"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. Just the tinder-dry fuel conditions are igniting fuels every time — brush or timber — every time an ember drops on the ground."
Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, was being held Thursday night on $10 million bail in El Dorado County Jail and was scheduled to be arraigned on Friday.
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.
District Attorney Vern Pierson declined to say what led investigators to Huntsman. Investigators were in contact with Hunstman before his arrest Wednesday night 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 she and her brother were raised in Santa Cruz and often camped. She 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 Feb. 27, 2013, arrest for resisting or obstructing a public officer. Officials said he has failed to show up for 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, the new complaint says.
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, Cal Fire officials said.
Many of the 12,000 threatened homes were in Pollock Pines, 60 miles east of Sacramento.
Residents at an evacuation center said they were worried despite no home damages reported yet.
"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.
Meanwhile, farther north in the town of Weed, 143 homes and nine other buildings, including churches, 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.