Crime - Sacto 911

Oroville man arrested for allegedly starting Ponderosa Fire that has destroyed 10 homes

A look at the Ponderosa Fire burning near Oroville in Butte County

A California State Park camera captures a time-lapse shot of the Ponderosa Fire burning near Oroville on August 29, 2017, around 3 p.m.
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A California State Park camera captures a time-lapse shot of the Ponderosa Fire burning near Oroville on August 29, 2017, around 3 p.m.

With a suspect in custody Wednesday for allegedly sparking the Ponderosa Fire with an illegal campfire, the blaze continued to burn out of control and increase concerns that it may burn into more densely populated areas.

By 8 p.m. Wednesday, the 3,150-acre fire east of Oroville had burned 10 homes and 20 other structures and was threatening 1.300 more structures, Cal Fire officials said. An immediate evacuation order was issued for the communities of Berry Creek, Brush Creek and Mountain House. The fire was reported 10 percent contained.

“The fire has been pushing north onto Middle Fork Feather River,” Butte County sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Collins said, adding that officials are worried the fire will spread into areas with more homes. “The concern is that it will jump over to the north side.”

Intense heat that is expected to continue through the week made conditions difficult for the 920 firefighters at the scene, and the steep, forested terrain of the Feather Falls area has made it difficult for personnel to gain ground on the blaze.

“It’s dangerous work where they’re at,” said Capt. Joe Chavez, with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Ponderosa Fire was one of several burning the length of the state.

The latest to erupt came Wednesday afternoon in a heavily forested part of Nevada County off Highway 49 and Pleasant Valley Road, where at least 200 acres quickly burned and forced evacuations from area neighborhoods. Cal Fire said in a tweet that “multiple structures (are) threatened and involved” in the Pleasant Fire, which was reported to be 10 percent contained Monday evening.

In Butte County, residents began evacuating neighborhoods Tuesday afternoon and continued to do so Wednesday.

South of the river, Sandra Kane, who lives on Lumpkin Road near Eagle Child Lane, said she and her family had only a few minutes to gather her belongings before the fire approached her home Tuesday afternoon. She said she saw photos of her house burned down from the fire.

The house was her boyfriend’s childhood home and the place where she and her son have lived for several years, raising a pig, chickens and planting a few fruit trees. They noticed the fire after the power in their home went out and they saw smoke.

“It wasn’t even that far, and then it just came charging at us like a freight train,” she said.

They were only able to take a few belongings, including clothes and medications.

On Wednesday, Kane worried about where she would stay for the night and considered heading to one of the evacuation centers. She was worried about her son, who is autistic.

No fatalities have been reported from the fire, which began Tuesday and is being blamed on an illegal campfire.

Authorities said John Ballenger, 29, was arrested on suspicion of starting a campfire outside of a designated campground. It got out of control and quickly spread, Cal Fire said in a statement.

“All campfires pose a risk of escaping,” said Darren Read, Cal Fire’s Butte County chief. “A campfire should never be left unattended and must be extinguished completely before everyone leaves.”

The Ponderosa Fire was initially reported at 1:16 p.m. Tuesday at Ponderosa Way and Lumpkin Road, two miles northwest of Forbestown in an area east of Lake Oroville. Officials said the fire continued to burn and spread overnight because of the dryness of the brush and down-canyon winds.

Evacuation orders were initially issued for Lumpkin Road from Forbestown Road to Station 51, Cal Fire reported. On Wednesday, authorities issued an immediate evacuation order for “the entire communities of Berry Creek, Brush Creek and Mountain House.”

Though mandatory evacuation orders were imposed, many Lumpkin Road residents elected to shelter in place, Chavez said.

Five firefighters were hurt on Tuesday, with three suffering from heat-related injuries and two others reporting injuries from the smoke.

An evacuation center at the Church of Nazarene in Oroville had 15 evacuees Wednesday morning, with the capacity to provide 100 beds if needed, said Lori Nichols, a volunteer with the American Red Cross from Elk Grove.

Wes Watson, 34, was one of the 15 at the shelter Wednesday morning. He stayed there with his fiancée and her two children, 8 and 9. He found out about the fire after he was blocked by Butte County sheriff’s deputies as he was making his way home after work on Tuesday at around 3 p.m.

The deputies said he could not go to his home on Craig Access Road, off of Lumpkin Road, because of a fire.

“I was mad as a hornet,” he said. “Knowing my family was up there and that I couldn’t get up there.”

Several agencies, including the Red Cross, Butte County Sheriff’s Office, Butte County Fire Department, Cal OES and the U.S. Forest Service are working together to contain the fire and help those affected.

Besides the Oroville church shelter, an American Red Cross shelter has been set up at the Ponderosa Community Center, 17103 Ponderosa Way, in Brownsville.

A shelter for small animals is available at the old county hospital, 2279 Del Oro Road in Oroville. Large animals may be taken to the Camelot Equestrian Park, 1985 Clark Road in Oroville.

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets Sam Stanton contributed to this report

Ponderosa Fire evacuations

Immediate evacuation order: Lumpkin Road from Forbestown Road to Station 51 and all connecting roads.

Evacuation warning: Lumpkin Road from the Enterprise Bridge to Lake View Terrace. All roads/areas within the perimeter of these boundaries:

▪ (Northwest) Bald Rock Road at Katella Road

▪ (Southwest) Big Ridge Road to Oro Quincy Highway, including Little Ridge Road

▪ (Southeast) Bean Creek at Eckards Lane

▪ (Northeast) Bald Rock Road to Enumclaw Road

Fire information line: 530-538-7826

CalFire

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