As fire officials began to confirm the first loss of homes and structures Friday in the King fire, the man accused of setting the massive blaze appeared in court for the first time and entered a not-guilty plea.
Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, did not speak during the brief arraignment before Judge Gary Hahn in El Dorado Superior Court, and the next hearing was set for Oct. 28.
District Attorney Vern Pierson said afterward that additional charges may be filed “in the very near future” depending on the number of homes that have been destroyed. “There are enhancements when there are more than five inhabited structures,” Pierson said. “At this point, we have not definitely confirmed that’s actually happened.”
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials have been saying since the fire began one week ago that they had no reports of structures being destroyed, but by Friday the remains of at least four homes could be seen on White Meadows Road in Pollock Pines, and fire officials conceded that some structures had been lost.
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One of the destroyed residences belonged to Garry and Sally Dykstra, who had been evacuated since Sunday and learned of the damage when reached by phone by The Sacramento Bee.
“We haven’t been told anything,” said Garry Dykstra, a retired sheriff’s deputy. “We’ve lost everything if that’s the case.”
The area where that home burned remains off limits to the public but is accessible to firefighters and the media. Dykstra said he and his wife were returning from the Bay Area on Sunday and planned on leaving on a cruise when they arrived at their neighborhood. There they saw a deputy they know who told them they had 10 minutes to pack everything they could and get out of the house where they had lived for 20 years.
“We’re staying with friends,” he said. “We’re holding up.”
The fire has blazed through nearly 120 square miles and is still only 10 percent contained, but 4,936 firefighters have been battling day and night to save as many structures as possible. At one point, officials said, 12,000 homes were threatened.
Authorities say the fire is the work of Huntsman, whom they describe as a small-time criminal offender from the Santa Cruz area who moved to El Dorado County about two years ago.
Authorities have said Huntsman came to their attention earlier in the week before his arrest Wednesday night but would not reveal what led them to him other than to say a seasoned Cal Fire investigator happened to be near where the blaze began Saturday.
But sources told The Bee that investigators believe Huntsman set the fire, then kicked in the door of an empty house and called 911 to report the fire himself.
Huntsman is being held on $10 million bail, and the allegations led Pierson to make a public appeal to Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday to sign a bill on his desk that greatly enhances penalties for some arson fires.
The bill, by state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, reinstates a measure that lapsed on Jan. 1 and allows for sentences of 10 years to life for someone convicted of aggravated arson, which is arson causing $7 million in damage, including firefighting costs.
The King fire is costing $5 million a day to fight, and while Pierson noted it could not be applied retroactively to the Huntsman case it could be an important tool for future arson prosecutions.
Shortly after Pierson sent a letter to the governor and made his remarks, Brown’s office issued an update of signed bills that included the arson measure.
The allegations against Huntsman have enraged many in El Dorado County, and one woman showed up at his hearing Friday because, she said, she wanted to see what a “monster” looked like.
“You’d never dream you’d see it in your lifetime, that somebody’s a monster,” said Lorraine Barber, a county employee who moved to Pollock Pines from Cameron Park four months ago and just finished spending $45,000 to remodel her home.
“I just wanted to see him,” she said, adding that her home is still standing but damaged by smoke and filled with ash.
Others were not as fortunate. Tom Boscow and his bulldozer had been on the containment line to save the community of Camino since Monday, but by 3:30 p.m. Friday he’d been off for the better part of an hour and went to check on his home on White Meadows Road.
Exhausted and still in his fire suit after days on the line, Boscow sat in the cab of his work truck in the driveway of a neighbor’s home with the dazed look of someone who had lost everything.
“My house got burned. My house is gone. My outbuildings are gone,” Boscow said. “I just wish I’d been here.”
Similar stories played out along this winding wooded road, where homes and structures were reduced to ash by a fire that raced and raged on its march through El Dorado and into Placer County.
Cal Fire would not say how many structures were lost, but “we confirmed a number of structures burned or were destroyed completely,” spokesman Mike McMillan said.
“Hot shot” and engine crews continued to stamp out smoldering hot spots Friday, and the area in and around Ice House remained under evacuation order.
“It was a complete burn in some areas. We can’t afford to take the risk of letting people stay,” McMillan said. “We don’t arrest, we just give the mandatory evacuation. That’s worked here.”
Firefighters from as far as North Carolina, Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Alaska were helping California firefighters on the lines.
On Friday, those crews were working the fire’s edges. They had earlier carved a line along the south fork of the American River to Wentworth Springs Road, while air tankers saturated the western edge to cut the fire’s fuel supply. The objective was to cut a miles-long fire line to French Meadows Reservoir, McMillan said. On the eastern edge, bulldozers and fire crews were cutting lines of their own as fire planners drew a new line in the sand at the middle fork of the American River.
Meanwhile, spot fires were reported north of Hell Hole ahead of the blaze, McMillan said. And at homes along White Meadows, fragments of lives lived poked through the rubble: a volleyball net and rope swing hanging from an oak tree. At another, pots, pans, a wood stove. A screen door lay on the ground where once someone’s home stood. Next to it, a welcome sign.