PLACERVILLE, Calif. >> A man with a lengthy criminal history 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.
The wind-whipped fire burned through 111 square miles and was 5 percent contained, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. 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, saying the case 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. 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.
“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.
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.
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.
–Fenit Nirappil and Sudhin Thanawala / Associated Press. Thanawala reported from San Francisco. Scott Smith in Fresno, Calif., Judith Ausuebel in New York and Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., contributed to this report.