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Hundreds Of Homes Threatened By Calif.'s King Fire

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A number of major wildfires are burning in California, fueled by high winds and very dry conditions. The top priority for firefighters is the King fire, burning east of Sacramento. It's blackened more than 110 square miles and is currently threatening more than 2,000 homes. Today, authorities charged a 37-year-old man named Wayne Allen Huntsman with deliberately setting the fire.

VERN PIERSON: Yesterday morning, a superior court judge here in El Dorado County issued a $10 million arrest warrant for this subject. He was taken into custody late yesterday and he - we filed a criminal complaint charging him in the El Dorado County Superior Court early this morning.

BLOCK: That's El Dorado County DA Vern Pierson. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, nearly 3,000 people have been forced to evacuate the area.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The King fire is burning in a matchbox forest of Ponderosa pine trees and tinder-dry shrubs and grasses from the high altitudes of the Tahoe Divide, down to the gentle slopes of the Western Sierra Foothills. Now, hundreds of vacation cabins, homes, small farms and horse ranches lie directly in its path. People have been packing up their campers and trailers and headed for this barn at the Placerville County Fairgrounds. Horses, goats and sheep are in pens. Ducks and chickens mill about. At a nearby Red Cross shelter, Violet Jakab has three of her German Shepherds on a leash.

VIOLET JAKAB: That's Joachim, and this is Magnolia.

SIEGLER: Joachim, he's actually a trained, certified disaster therapy dog. Who knew she'd be the one who needs him?

JAKAB: Coincidentally, yes. (Laughter).

SIEGLER: Jakab was away for two days visiting a friend when the King fire took off. Now she's not sure when she'll get home or if her home is even standing.

JAKAB: It's very shocking, you know. Come up - it looks like they've thrown the atomic bomb in the area.

SIEGLER: Slurry bombers circling the fire look like tiny gnats compared to the giant, mushroom-like cloud above the flames. This blaze is burning so intensely, due to the droughts and prolonged hot summer here, that mostly crews are just trying to steer the flames away from homes and small towns.

KEITH GURROLA: Definitely, our firefighter safety is paramount. You know, we've already had a couple close calls over the last few days on this incident. And that's always on our mind, as far as how we're able to attack the fire.

SIEGLER: Keith Gurrola is an Operations Manager with the Federal Incident Management Team, now in charge of the King fire. He says he's not surprised it made a 15-mile run overnight, given the gusty winds and dry, dense stands of trees.

GURROLA: The drought is very much a primary factor.

SIEGLER: Fire managers are doing all they can to avoid an incident like the one that occurred earlier this week in the town of Weed, California, a couple hours north of here by the Oregon border - over a hundred homes destroyed in a matter of hours. Now that scenario is very much on the minds of folks who live in the tiny hamlet of Georgetown, where the King fire has been heading towards. This is an old mining and logging town. People here figure that drought is a major factor behind the fire's massive spread. But you'll also get an earful from loggers, like Jeff Shurtz, who say the forests here haven't been managed effectively.

JEFF SHURTZ: When you log a place, it cleans it out. But you haven't seen that in years. So if you've got 15, 20 years of none of that, what do you see? You see nothing but undergrowth and brush.

SIEGLER: Shurtz and some of his neighbors are drinking Coronas and swapping evacuation stories under the shade of trees in a small park while they wait for word on the fire. Mike Monroe says people here are used to living with wildfires and have done a lot to clear brush and trees from around their homes.

MIKE MONROE: If you've got defensible space and you got water - a generator to keep your pumps going and stuffs - you can defend it.

SIEGLER: If the evacuation orders come for him, Monroe plans to stay behind and protect his house. That's what he did the last time a big fire came through here in 1994, he says. And his house was one of the only ones left standing. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Placerville, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.