California wildfire threatening hundreds of homes

AP Photo/DynCorp InternationalThis undated photo provided by DynCorp International shows pilot Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt who was killed Tuesday

AP Photo/DynCorp InternationalThis undated photo provided by DynCorp International shows pilot Geoffrey "Craig" Hunt who was killed Tuesday

A series of wildfires along a Northern California interstate destroyed five homes and threatened hundreds more as fire crews fought Thursday to keep it from a canyon where dry brush could make it a far bigger problem, officials said.

The fires along Interstate 80 broke out Wednesday, the same day that California's fleet of 22 air tankers was grounded after one of the planes crashed while battling a separate wildfire in Yosemite National Park, killing the pilot.

Crews fighting the small fires along the interstate about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento were relying on air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service and helicopters to drop fire retardant on the blaze, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

“We're really aggressively hitting this fire,” Berlant said. “There's still a lot of work to be done for our crews.”

Berlant said a decision to lift the safety stand-down on the department's own 22 S-2T air tankers will depend in part on preliminary results from the investigation into the crash.

“Once we determine that there is no clear mechanical issue with the entire fleet, then we will feel more comfortable having them in the air,” Berlant said. “There's nothing that points us in that direction, but we need to ensure that first.”

The fires along Interstate 80 were threatening 1,000 structures around the community of Applegate in Placer County, with many homes under mandatory evacuation orders.

The fires had burned through 420 acres since beginning Wednesday. It was 20 percent contained.

Crews were focusing on protecting homes and keeping the fires out of the American River canyon, where another fire this year showed explosive growth, Berlant said.

It was not immediately clear what caused the fires, but officials said they were looking into the possibility that human activity was to blame. At least two callers reported seeing several car tires burning along the eastbound shoulder of the interstate, California Highway Patrol officer Mike Martis said.

Dustin Andrews, a concrete fabricator from Sacramento, said he saw flames lapping at the roadside.

“We realized it was right up against the highway in four or five different areas,” he said. “It happened so fast, but over such a wide area.”

The eastbound lanes of I-80 were closed for several hours. A single lane was opened when the blaze was 10 percent contained, and the two remaining eastbound lanes remained closed.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board had two investigators at the site of Tuesday's plane crash on the western edge of Yosemite National Park. The investigators were examining parts of the aircraft that they could reach, though the 250-acre fire was limiting access to other parts of what was described as a nearly quarter-mile-long debris field, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said.

By week's end, the investigators planned to take the wreckage to a secure facility for more examination. They will then interview witnesses and examine radar data and radio communications.

Holloway said a final determination on the cause of the crash could take a year or more. A preliminary report could be available next week.

Fire officials said the air tanker crashed into a steep canyon wall north of the Merced River.

The body of pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt was recovered Wednesday. Hunt, 62, of San Jose, had worked with CalFire for 13 years after serving as a U.S. Navy pilot from 1975-1984 and another 20 years in the Navy reserves.

“My dad died a hero,” his daughter, Sarah Hunt Lauterbach, said in a statement released through CalFire. “There was not a day that went by that I didn't talk to my dad. He was my best friend.”

Hunt piloted one of two air tankers flying out of CalFire's base in Hollister, 150 miles south of Sacramento.

He had master's degrees in business and biochemistry and taught chemistry at the University of Santa Cruz.

“He did math equations for fun. That's what he did in his spare time,” recalled CalFire Battalion Chief Joshua Nettles, who is in charge of the Hollister base.

Since his death, community members have left flowers and notes of condolence at the base's gate.

“Everybody here at the air attack base has been affected by this unexpected tragedy. We're all working through this as a family,” Nettles said.

CaliforniaCalifornia NewsSequoiasWildfiresYosemite National Park

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Dave Hodges, pastor at Zide Door, the Church of Entheogenic Plants that include marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms, holds some psychedelic mushrooms inside the Oakland church on Friday, July 22, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
San Francisco Police stand guard outside the Mission Police Station during a protest over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Fired: California bill aims to decertify police for serious misconduct

By Robert Lewis CalMatters On a Wednesday afternoon in April 2018, Gardena… Continue reading

The Giants and Dodgers face each other again following a May series the Dodgers swept; Dodgers shortstop Gavin Lux caught stealing by Giants second baseman Donovan Solano at Oracle Park on May 23 is pictured. 
Chris Victorio/
Special to The Examiner
Giants vs. Dodgers: What you need to know before this week’s huge series

By Chris Haft Special to The Examiner That grinding noise you’ll hear… Continue reading

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that state employees and health care workers must be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing and wear masks. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters)
California orders vaccine or testing for health care workers, state employees

By Ana B. Ibarra CalMatters Amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases and… Continue reading

Jeremy Kahn and Monica Ho are excellent in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Lauren Yee’s “The Song of Summer,” being presented live and online. (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)
Touching relationship at heart of ‘Song of Summer’

Lighthearted SF Playhouse show ‘feels right for this moment’

Most Read