King Fire Update: Rain Tames Blaze Even as Warm, Dry Weather Returns
Update, 4:15 p.m. Monday (Sept. 29): Fire officials say that the King Fire will kick up a little this week as warm, dry weather returns to the Sierra Nevada. But as of Monday, they say they're confident that the fire in the forests west of Lake Tahoe has been pretty much stopped in its tracks by several days of rain. Here's the summary of the situation from the unified federal-state fire command:
After four days of precipitation with accumulations of 1 to 3 inches, fire spread has been halted, however heat remains in the heavier fuels and in the heavy duff sheltered from the rain under the dense timber canopy. As the weather turns warm and dry over the next several days, expect to see an increase in fire activity and smoke production; however spread potential is extremely low, due to the successful suppression efforts.
Allegedly the work of an arsonist, the King Fire has burned 97,000 acres -- about 150 square miles -- since starting Sept. 13.
To the north, federal fire managers have issued a final update on the Happy Camp Complex Fire, which has earned a footnote in California wildfire history. The blaze -- actually the combination of several fires that started Aug. 12 and burned together in the following weeks -- has burned nearly 133,000 acres (about 210 square miles) of timber in Siskiyou County south of the Klamath River. According to Cal Fire, that makes it the 16th-biggest California fire in area going back to 1932.
Update, 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 25) : Rain sounds like a great thing when you're facing the ravages of a wildfire. Right? But for those fighting the two biggest fires in California -- the Happy Camp Complex in Siskiyou County and the King Fire in El Dorado and Placer counties -- the state's first significant rain of the season was a little too much of a good thing.
The storm that moved slowly across the North Coast on Wednesday night, then over the central Sierra Nevada earlier Thursday, proved to be very wet, dumping more than 2 inches of rain over the Happy Camp blaze and less copious but still occasionally heavy rain on the King conflagration.
The result: Flash flood warnings were issued for the 210 square miles or so burned so far near Happy Camp in a blaze that started Aug. 12 and for the 145 square miles the King Fire has consumed since Sept. 13 in the Sierra forests west of Lake Tahoe. The heavy rain prompted fears of excessive runoff, debris flows and rock slides, especially on the steeper slopes seared by the fires. Those concerns led fire managers to pull crews off lines until the storm passed.
But the rains helped slow down the King Fire substantially, according to the latest event summary. "The observed fire activity was minimal with smoldering in interior pockets of the heavier fuels," it says.
Officially: As of Thursday evening, the King Fire is reported to have burned 95,347 acres and is 55 percent contained. The Happy Camp Fire is at 132,733 acres and 94 percent containment.
Update, 8:30 a.m. Wednesday: This morning, King Fire containment is at 38 percent, with about 93,000 acres burned. InciWeb reports that the fire "remained relatively active throughout the night due to the poor relative humidity recovery and wind." Potential remains for "extreme fire behavior if the winds, fuels, and topography come into alignment."
More from the Sacramento Bee, which reports community meetings will be held tonight at 7 p.m. at North Tahoe High School and Foresthill High School.
Update, 1:25 p.m. Tuesday: The good news on the King Fire, which has burned almost 90,000 acres of Sierra Nevada forests west of Lake Tahoe since it started Sept. 13: The force of nearly 7,500 fire personnel fighting the blaze, aided by several days of cool, damp weather, has achieved 35 percent containment.
The bad news: Much warmer, drier and windier weather is sweeping across much of the northern Sierra, including the fire zone. The National Weather Service has issued a red-flag warning for the mountains from Yosemite clear up to the Oregon border. For El Dorado and Placer counties, where the fire is burning, the forecast calls for winds gusting up to 25 mph through Wednesday evening. After that, much of Northern California has a strong chance of rain.
For a second day in a row, the National Weather Service has issued a dense smoke advisory for the city, surrounding towns and the Tahoe Basin.
Some communities in the fire region have experienced extremely high levels of particulate pollution over the past several days. The reading for PM 2.5 -- fine particulates like those found in wood smoke -- was an astonishing 434 in parts of Placer County, northeast of Sacramento, on Tuesday morning. By comparison, the measure in most of the Bay Area was in the low 30s. In Auburn, air quality earlier Tuesday was classified as "hazardous" under the EPA's rating system.
Ann Hobbs, an air quality specialist with the Placer County Air Pollution Control District, said the worst of the pollution in Auburn had cleared by midday as winds shifted.
Update, 7:30 a.m. Monday: Cool, moist weather over the weekend, complete with occasional rain, has allowed the 5,500-person force fighting the King Fire to gain ground on the blaze burning across a large swath of the Sierra west of Lake Tahoe. The new acreage total for the King Fire released Monday: 87,592 acres, or 136 square miles, with about 18 percent containment.
Smoke from the fire will continue to have an impact over a wide area. The National Weather Service has issued dense-smoke advisories for Reno and the entire Tahoe basin. Concern about exposing students to poor air quality led several schools, including those in the towns of Colfax and Foresthill in Placer County, to cancel classes on Monday.
The fire has destroyed 10 homes and 22 "minor structures."
Update, 5:30 p.m. Saturday: No surprise: All the numbers have gotten bigger for the King Fire today. Fire officials say -- here, on Inciweb's King Fire page -- that the area covered by the blaze is now 81,000 acres (that's the number released this morning, so it's bigger now). About 4,900 personnel are assigned to fight the blaze -- the largest contingent assigned to a fire in California this year.
The fire is still rated as 10 percent contained, unchanged from Friday. Fire officials say the contained edge of the fire is along its southern flank, along U.S. 50 near the community of Pollock Pines, where it began a week ago.
The fire's biggest impact away from the burned area is the heavy smoke that's settled over much of the southern Sacramento Valley and the northern and central Sierra and foothills. The EPA's AirNow monitoring site shows air quality in the foothills near Auburn, northeast of Sacramento on Interstate 80, has ranged from very unhealthy to hazardous for most of Saturday. Air pollution in most of the Bay Area has been rated as "moderate" most of Saturday.
Update, 2:50 p.m. Friday: Wayne Allen Huntsman, the 37-year-old suspect in the King Fire that's swept through more than 76,000 acres of Sierra forest this week, entered a not guilty plea Friday to a charge that he deliberately set the blaze. Huntsman's next hearing on a single count of forest arson was set for late October. He continues to be held on $10 million bond.
That plea came as the first reports surfaced that homes have been destroyed in the fire. Sacramento's KCRA-Channel 3 reported Friday afternoon that the fire destroyed at least four homes north of U.S. 50, in an area called White Meadows about 6 miles from where the fire started.
Fire officials said Friday they were assessing structures in the area and wanted to contact property owners before confirming losses.
Huntsman's plea in El Dorado County Superior Court in Placerville was made as media reports emerge detailing the suspect's past and offering clues about the fire's origin near the community of Pollock Pines last weekend.
Sacramento's News10 reported Friday that police believe the arson suspect broke into a home in an apparent attempt to call 911 to report the fire. News10 says that account comes from a homeowner, Ralf Lorenz, whose front door was kicked in last Saturday:
Lorenz wasn't home at the time. He was working in the Bay Area when the King Fire broke out Saturday on the steep embankment behind his home. His first clue that something wasn't right was when he got a call from his home security company that afternoon.
"I didn't know if my house was still standing," Lorenz said. "I didn't know if it was pilfered."
Nothing was taken. But, Lorenz's front door was broken.
"The perpetrator kicked it in," Lorenz said. "He tried to call 911 to report the fire."
News10 said that law enforcement officials declined comment on Lorenz's story.
Several news sources reported on interviews with Huntsman's sister and former girlfriend, who both expressed incredulity that he's been accused with setting the fire.
"There's no way he would have ever done this intentionally," Tami Criswell of Salinas said in a telephone interview, one day after her brother, Wayne Allen Huntsman, was charged with felony arson....
… (She) said her brother loves the outdoors and is not someone who would want to destroy it.
"He had everything going for him," she said. "There's no reason he would ever do this." ...
... Huntsman has a criminal record that includes convictions for assault with a deadly weapon and grand theft in Santa Cruz County in 1997, public records show. None of his crimes relate to arson, and his sister said he cleaned up his act a long time ago.
"He had been in good standing with the law and the community," said Criswell. "He's always been part of my family and my kids. He's been helping take care of his elderly grandmother."
Criswell said Huntsman has enjoyed his life in the Sierra foothills, where he has friends and a few family members and where work has been steadier than in Santa Cruz.
She told Alexander the last time she spoke to Huntsman was Saturday, the same day the fire started.
One last update for now, by way of the Associated Press: Cal Fire says it set a record on Wednesday for the amount of retardant dropped on a wildfire in a single day:
Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff says air tankers on Wednesday poured 203,375 gallons of the red slurry on an explosive Northern California wildfire that has now burned through nearly 120 square miles of timber and vegetation.
As of Friday, Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service together had dumped 530,000 gallons on the El Dorado County blaze.
Tolmachoff says the fire is burning so fiercely it is running through the retardant lines because of the extreme drought conditions.
Update, 9:30 a.m. Friday: The force of more than 4,000 firefighters trying to corral the massive King Fire in El Dorado and Placer counties have gotten some help from a powerful ally -- the weather.
Fire managers report much cooler temperatures, along with humidity as high as 90 percent. That slowed the growth of the fire, which had raced north through the heavily forested terrain north of U.S. 50 on Wednesday, to a few thousand acres on Thursday. But the outlook may not be so good Friday: the return of dryer, warmer weather is expected to allow the fire to gain strength again today. So far, the King Fire has burned 76,376 acres and is 10 percent contained. That's about 120 square miles, roughly two-thirds the area of San Jose.
Investigators say the fire was deliberately set in steep terrain near the community of Pollock Pines last Saturday. The suspect in the case, identified Thursday as Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, is scheduled to be arraigned in Placerville this afternoon on a single count of forest arson.
Update, 6:15 p.m. Thursday: As we posted earlier (see below) El Dorado County authorities announced the arrest of an arson suspect in the King Fire.
The fire has burned 73,000 acres and is 10 percent contained. That's about 115 square miles, or the equivalent of the San Francisco Peninsula from the Golden Gate down to Pacifica and Millbrae.
The fresh news that emerged this afternoon is that the fire's rapid spread through the heavily forested American River watershed north of U.S. 50 is threatening power infrastructure in the area.
The Placer County Water Agency, which serves communities from suburban Sacramento through the Sierra foothills and all the way to Lake Tahoe, said that the King Fire is now threatening its power generation facilities and PG&E transmission lines.
The mammoth King Fire spread rapidly into Placer County Wednesday night. ... The head of the fire has moved all the way to Placer County Water Agency’s Hell Hole Reservoir on the Rubicon River. It seriously threatens PCWA power generation and PG&E transmission facilities. The swath of fire in Placer County is 6 miles wide and fire officials report no containment after last night.
“We’re extremely concerned and we’re monitoring the situation very closely. We’ve moved all of our employees out of the danger zone, so now our number one concern is protecting PCWA’s Middle Fork American River Project hydroelectric generation facilities and PG&E’s transmission lines. The agency and PG&E are coordinating with the fire command and emergency services officials in El Dorado and Placer counties,” said PCWA General Manager David Breninger.
Mike Kaslin with the Cal Fire Amador County unit says the front of the fire is now about 14 miles west of Lake Tahoe.
"That area is fairly remote and we are sending resources up there to continue to flank it," says Kaslin. "But, the lion's share of our efforts are still going to be on the south end where the infrastructure -the homes and residences are."
Heavy smoke ... has triggered a warning in Washoe County about the extremely poor air quality and prompted schools to cancel most athletic games and other outdoor events in the Reno area.
The Washoe County Health District said the air quality index reached the "very unhealthy" range at 4 p.m. Thursday. That's one step away from "hazardous."
Health officials say the "very unhealthy" air quality index reading of 221 means the general population may experience significant health effects. Its Reno's worst reading since 2008 when a string of Sierra fires pushed it to 211.
Officials earlier urged sensitive groups such as the elderly and people with respiratory conditions to remain indoors when the index climbed into the "unhealthy" range between 151 and 200.
Update, 3:20 p.m. Thursday: El Dorado County authorities have filed arson charges in the King Fire, which has raged across 71,000 acres of forest near the community of Pollock Pines since it started Saturday evening.
At a press conference Thursday morning in Camino, the county's district attorney announced that 37-year-old Wayne Allen Huntsman has been charged with a single court of arson of forest land. His arraignment is scheduled for Friday. Multiple media sources report he's being held on $10 million bail. We've embedded the district attorney's complaint against Huntsman below.
Monterey's KSBW reports that Huntsman is a resident of Aptos, near Santa Cruz. The charging document released Thursday shows four past felonies, including three 1997 convictions in Santa Cruz County. Those offenses include assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft and auto theft.
It was revealed at the news conference that the fire was set near Pollock Pines in very steep terrain. A Calfire investigator was the first to find the origin of the fire and begin the investigatory process that led to Huntsman’s arrest.
Pierson said that law enforcement had been in contact with the suspect in the days prior to his arrest in Placerville.
Update, 10:35 a.m. Thursday: Cal Fire has scheduled an 11:30 a.m. press conference to announce the cause of the huge and rapidly spreading King Fire in El Dorado County. The 71,000-acre fire started Saturday evening and the origin has been under investigation.
The Mountain Democrat of Placerville is reporting that El Dorado County authorities arrested a suspect Wednesday night on a single count of arson on forest land, though it's not known for sure whether the suspect was picked up for starting the King Fire. The Mountain Democrat says the suspect, whom we'll refrain from naming for the time being, is being held on $10 million bail.
El Dorado County sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Leikauf said his is withholding comment until the Cal Fire press conference. We'll note that sheriff's officials, the El Dorado County district attorney and U.S. Forest Service officials are scheduled to attend the press conference in the town of Camino.
Update, 9:40 a.m. Thursday: YubaNet.com, based in Nevada City, has been providing some of the most comprehensive coverage of California fires all season long. YubaNet's page on the King Fire includes an excellent map -- embedded below this update -- that shows the rapid progress of the fire through El Dorado National Forest and, possibly, into Tahoe National Forest.
Original post: The major wildfire burning north of the Bay Area's main route to Lake Tahoe has exploded in size, with state and federal officials now saying the King Fire northeast of Placerville has covered nearly 71,000 acres.
Officials say the blaze is threatening 2,000 homes and 1,500 "minor structures" near the El Dorado County community of Pollock Pines, which is in a sort of transition zone from the Sierra Nevada foothills into thickly timbered mountain ridges and canyons in the American River watershed. So far, there's no word that the fire has burned homes or structures. About 3,600 personnel have been assigned to the fire, which is 5 percent contained.
According to the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire, most of the blaze's spread over the last day has been to the north and northwest, toward the communities of Swansboro and Volcanoville and Stumpy Meadows Reservoir.
...Highway 50 is closed again in the Sierra Nevada as crews set backfires to stem the march of the King blaze that has charred a broad swath of timberland in El Dorado County.
The California Highway Patrol reports that [an 8-mile] stretch of the highway from Sly Park Road to Ice House Road closed again around midnight. Firefighters are busy setting backfires that they hope will burn into the main fire and provide a large burned buffer between flames and homes.
The closure will be re-evaluated later today.
“The fire is close to the roadway and they are trying to get crews in and out,” said CHP spokesman Officer Rich Wetzel.
Alternate routes for trans-Sierra travelers are Interstate 80 and Highway 88.
The rapid growth of the King Fire -- which apparently quadrupled in size from early Wednesday to early Thursday -- has been breathtaking.
The blaze started last Saturday evening on the outskirts of the community of Pollock Pines, about a dozen miles as the crow flies northeast of Placerville. That evening, it was reported to be 20 acres. Driven by hot, dry and occasionally windy weather and feeding on drought-parched forests, the fire has expanded rapidly since, covering 3,000 acres by Sunday evening, 8,600 by Monday night and 12,800 by Tuesday night and about 18,500 on Wednesday morning. After dark Wednesday, officials said the fire had grown to 28,000 acres, an estimate updated to 71,000 Thursday morning.
The current acreage total is equivalent to abut 110 square miles. How would that area look on a Bay Area map? It's roughly equal to the San Francisco Peninsula from the Golden Gate all the way down to Pacifica and Millbrae.
Fire officials say that weather conditions Thursday, though a bit cooler and moister than earlier in the week, could feed "extreme fire behavior" in the continue to push the fire north, east and west. Fire managers also report the southern flank of the fire, near Pollock Pines and along U.S. 50, is the most secure at this point.