Arson arrest made in massive California wildfire

POLLOCK PINES, Calif. -- Authorities say they have arrested a man on suspicion of arson in the fast-growing King Fire that has driven nearly 2,800 people from their homes.

The arrest of 37-year-old Wayne Allen Huntsman was announced Thursday. Huntsman is described as a transient and is charged with "willfully and maliciously" setting fire to forest land near Pollock Pines.

Huntsman has prior felony convictions in Plumas and Santa Cruz counties, but none of those involve arson. They do include assault with a deadly weapon and grand theft. Last year, Huntsman was arrested at his cottage on Pony Express Trail for disturbing the peace and got two years' probation for it. Huntsman was forced to move out of his cottage in March because it was destroyed by an act of arson. Huntsman will be arraigned on Friday.

Meanwhile, the King Fire has grown to 71,000 acres and has spread from El Dorado to Placer Counties.

"Fires are spotting over a mile ahead of the main fire. That means the embers that come out of these fires out of the smoke column are lofted and go way out into the unburned area and start a fire," explained Ken Pimlott with Cal Fire.

While hand crews work on the ground, Cal Fire says they dropped more than 400,000 gallons of retardant in just the past two days. Even still, the fire is just 5 percent contained.

The 111-square-mile fire, 60 miles east of Sacramento, is threatening about 2,000 homes around the town of Pollock Pines. It has been fueled by gusty winds, along with timber and grass that is bone dry because of the state's ongoing drought.

PHOTOS: King Fire continues to burn near town of Pollock Pines

"This fire is definitely eye-opening," Cal Fire spokeswoman Alyssa Smith said.

The blaze, which began Saturday, has been fueled by heavy timber and grass that is extremely dry because of California's third straight year of drought.

Though the fire grew substantially late Wednesday, it burned mostly into wilderness land in the El Dorado National Forest away from the town, according to Cal Fire.

The blaze was burning about 20 miles from the Desolation Wilderness, a popular hiking area south of Lake Tahoe.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency late Wednesday, freeing up funds for the numerous wildfires burning throughout the state. Brown also had secured federal grants to fight each of them.

Rain was possible in the area Thursday, though more gusty, erratic winds also were expected, and there was a chance of lightning.

Meanwhile, farther north in the town of Weed, teams of firefighters went house-to-house Wednesday to survey damage by a wildfire that officials estimated had destroyed 110 homes and damaged another 90. The damage assessment was expected to continue Thursday.

Four firefighters lost their homes. Two churches, a community center and the library also burned to the ground, while an elementary school and the city's last wood-products mill were damaged by flames that were pushed by 40-mph winds.

Insurance companies worked to find places to live for the people who lost their homes.

The cause of the blaze that rapidly swept across town was under investigation. It was 65 percent contained after burning 375 acres.

Charred neighborhoods remained off-limits, but people were finding ways in.

The Rev. Bill Hofer, pastor of Weed Berean Church, said power was back on in his home, which was still standing on the edge of the devastation zone, and he planned to return - despite the evacuation order - to deter vandalism.

"The more people home with the lights on, the better," he said.

ABC7 news staff contributed to this report.
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