Weary firefighters and relieved El Dorado County residents expressed elation Thursday at word that an arson suspect had been arrested and charged with starting the massive King fire, which has charred roughly 76,000 acres of forest in El Dorado and Placer counties since Saturday and threatens 12,000 homes.
After an investigation that officials said began minutes after the fire broke out in steep terrain near Pollock Pines, authorities late Wednesday arrested Wayne Allen Huntsman, a 37-year-old area resident with a criminal history that includes convictions for assault with a deadly weapon, theft, vehicle theft and receiving stolen property.
Huntsman, who is being held in the El Dorado County jail in Placerville in lieu of $10 million bail, is charged with one felony count or arson of forestland and a special allegation of arson with aggravating factors – the injuries that two firefighters have sustained while battling the blaze.
“A wildfire like this is a very dangerous thing,” El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson said at a news conference with sheriff’s and firefighting officials at the Cal Fire facility in Camino, where the arrest was formally announced.
Pierson and other officials would not describe how they believe Huntsman set the fire, but the criminal complaint states that he did so “willfully and maliciously” and investigators are continuing to probe his background and his actions in recent days.
Pierson said authorities had contacted Huntsman earlier in the week and that he was arrested late Wednesday after an El Dorado Superior Court judge signed off on an arrest warrant.
Huntsman declined to be interviewed Thursday at the jail and is due to make his first court appearance at 1 p.m. Friday.
Huntsman’s prior convictions are from run-ins with the law in Santa Cruz and Plumas counties, and relatives of his could not be reached for comment Thursday.
But friends of Huntsman’s, some of whom knew him as “Chris,” recalled him as being friendly and quiet.
At the motor court where he once lived on Pony Express Way in Pollock Pines, former neighbors said they hadn’t seen him in months.
“He was very friendly – he was my buddy,” said Samantha Konopaske. She recalled how he showed up at her home as she recuperated from a recent hospital stay. “He was by my side when I got out of the hospital, he saved stuff of mine. I love that dude.”
But others forced to flee their homes to escape the blaze, and firefighters brought in to fight it, had other opinions.
“People are nuts,” said Camino resident Herve Leconte, who was sitting atop his minivan along Highway 50 near Cedar Glen, holding a large “Thank you” sign aimed at passing firefighters and law enforcement officers.
“If the man is guilty, I hope he goes to jail for a long time,” said El Dorado County Supervisor Ron Briggs.
Some firefighters had been told initially that the blaze might have been sparked by lightning, and those who were working in areas with cellphone service Thursday learned of the arrest from news alerts on their phones.
“People like that probably don’t have much, and he’s not going to pay for this,” Modesto firefighter Paul Autry said Thursday as he worked shoveling the charred earth on a steep ravine above Pollock Pines where flames were still burning.
Autry, who arrived before dawn Monday with a crew from the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District, was well into his 24-hour shift and shook his head in wonder that the fire might be arson.
“Look at what it puts the state through,” he said. “You could lose people’s homes. It costs money and everyone here, you’re jeopardizing your health because of what you’re breathing. All because somebody wanted to start a fire.”
Authorities said they had no information to indicate that Huntsman had any help in allegedly starting the blaze, but noted that they found important leads almost immediately.
“Literally within minutes of the fire being discovered there was a very, very experienced (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) investigator that was on scene,” Pierson said. “And then there was a significant cooperation between both state, federal and local law enforcement investigating the case, interviewing people and following numerous leads.”
Pierson added that Huntsman was taken into custody in Placerville, but would not elaborate.
Nearly 4,000 firefighters from around the state are fighting the blaze in a battle that is costing taxpayers $5 million a day. The federal government announced Thursday that it has agreed to Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for funding that will pay 75 percent of the state’s firefighting costs.
As of late Thursday, firefighters had managed to keep the flames from burning a single structure, despite the fact that it blew up overnight from about 28,000 acres to 71,000 acres in a steady march across 15 miles of forest. The fire remained at only 10 percent containment Thursday evening, although firefighters were helped by cooler weather that blanketed the smoke-filled region.
“There is no estimate for containment for this fire,” said Laurence Crabtree, supervisor of the El Dorado National Forest for the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s a growing and dangerous fire.”
The blaze is burning on steep hillsides in the south fork of the American River Canyon and Silver Creek Canyon, north of Pollock Pines, and made a big move to the northwest Wednesday night, requiring authorities to evacuate the hamlets of Quintette and Volcanoville and continue backfires that closed eastbound Highway 50 above Fresh Pond.
Early in the week, firefighters worried that the blaze would cross Highway 50 and devastate communities like Pollock Pines and Kyburz, but a determined effort stopped that movement.
Pollock Pines resident Debbie Borror said residents’ nerves are calmer now that fire crews have pushed the flames away from town.
“Sunday morning, we saw a crew of five Cal Fire guys using our pool to put out a fire,” Borror said from behind the counter of the auto parts store she manages on Pony Express Drive. “They told us, ‘You’re going to be evacuated, just be expectant of that. We were the first ones at the evacuation center. I said, ‘Get ready, because we’re all coming.’ ”
After four days, first in an evacuation center, then her father-in-law’s home, the evacuation order for her neighborhood was lifted late Wednesday.
Borror’s house stands, but she took no chances Thursday. Her lunch break was spent repacking her bags to prepare for the next evacuation call.
“I’m glad to be home, but you don’t feel safe,” she said. “You don’t feel the same. Look at what’s burned overnight. That’s insane.”
She added that word of Huntsman’s arrest resonated in her shop because workers believe they recognized the face they saw on mug shots released by authorities. “He’s recognizable from the store, we’re pretty sure,” Borror said.
With miles of land blackened and lives threatened, residents’ emotions were raw when his name was brought up.
“Go ahead and waive the bail and let him out in front of the fire,” Borror said. “Let’s see how this guy likes his personal safety being threatened.”
“What do you think we ought to do with him?” she then asked a customer.
“Drop him off at my house,” Jeremy Lowrance said flatly. “I’m not claiming I’ll do anything to him, but I’m not claiming I’ll make him dinner, either.”