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.