Arsonist’s selfie at King Fire leads to sentence of 20 years in prison

A man’s selfie video was one of the important pieces of evidence that led to him becoming a suspect in starting the 2014 King Fire that burned about 100,000 acres east of Placerville, California. Wayne Allen Huntsman, who pleaded guilty Friday to three counts of felony arson, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $60 million in restitution.

Wayne Allen Huntsman
Wayne Allen Huntsman

After starting the fire, Mr. Huntsman showed someone he had just met who was giving him a ride, a video of himself standing near two points of origin of the King Fire. The good citizen recorded Mr. Huntsman’s video and reported what he had seen. Three days later Mr. Huntsman was in jail. Media outlets reported that he was held in lieu of $10 million bail.

On September 15, 2014, during the fire suppression efforts, 12 firefighters on an inmate crew became at least partially entrapped and deployed their fire shelters. But they were not in a safe deployment site. Pilots in firefighting aircraft talked to them on the radio and directed them as they walked and ran a considerable distance to a location where they could be extracted by helicopters.

The charges against Mr. Huntsman included a special allegation — arson with aggravating factors. The complaint said those factors were:

A firefighter, peace officer, or other emergency personnel suffered great bodily injury as a result of the offense.

His criminal history at the time of arrest showed four past felonies, including three 1997 convictions in Santa Cruz County for assault with a deadly weapon, grand theft and auto theft.

Below is a video of Mr. Huntsman’s video recorded by the person that gave Mr. Huntsman a ride.

This next video is an excellent report on the whole story. At first I thought the audio at the beginning was screwed up, but the multiple voices eventually resolve to normal narration.

Aerial mulching on the King Fire

heli-mulching King Fire
A helicopter lifting a sling load of straw mulch. USFS photo.

Two months after 12 firefighters were entrapped and eventually led to safety by a pilot in a helicopter, helicopters again played an important role in the King Fire in northern California.

In late November the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) began a joint project to drop straw mulch from helicopters over approximately 1,200 acres of Eldorado National Forest land that burned with moderate to high intensity during the recent King Fire. The purpose of the project is to protect critical infrastructure from potentially severe post-fire erosion that may occur with winter storms. The infrastructure at risk includes Eleven Pines Road, which serves as the primary route from Highway 50 to the northern end of the Eldorado National Forest, and the Brush Creek and Slab Creek reservoirs, which are integral to SMUD’s hydroelectric facilities in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

heli-mulching King Fire
A completed straw mulch unit. USFS photo.

“This is a great example of the outstanding collaboration we’ve had during all phases of the King Fire,” said Eldorado Forest Supervisor Laurence Crabtree. A contract was awarded to Bradco Environmental, a company based in Crestline, CA, to complete the work. Large bales of certified weed free straw, a by-product of rice grown in California, were loaded into horizontal grinders which chopped the straw into four to eight inch pieces of mulch prior to aerial application. Two medium sized helicopters were used to drop the mulch onto slopes ranging from 15% to 60% grade, treating approximately 80 acres per day with each helicopter.

All of the treatment areas were identified by Forest Service soil scientists and hydrologists as sites needing immediate attention before heavy winter rains and snow arrived. This emergency erosion prevention project is designed to reduce the amount of sediment eroding off hillsides due to the loss of vegetative cover associated with the fire. Excessive sediment can block culverts and impact water quality in streams and reservoirs which could lead to flooding, road closures, decreased water storage capacity and loss of hydroelectric generation. This joint helimulching project is expected to prevent several thousand tons of sediment from eroding.

On December 4, 2014, due to the predicted weather for the following couple of weeks, all mulching operations were halted until the King Fire receives a significant warming and drying period or until after spring snow melt. This could be several months. Storm patrols and engineering work will continue throughout the winter.

heli-mulching King Fire
Burned Area Emergency Response crew inspects a straw mulched unit. USFS photo.

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More details emerge about the fire shelter deployment on the King Fire

An article in Vertical Magazine, a publication for the civilian helicopter industry, adds more details about the incident that occurred on the King Fire east of Placerville, California where 12 firefighters deployed their fire shelters in front of advancing flames.

On September 15 we live blogged about the deployment while listening to the radio traffic, and the Arizona Republic interviewed the crew boss for an article published on September 29. The story in Vertical, published on September 30 and written by Dan Megna after interviewing the crew boss and the helicopter pilot, recounts what happened, with more details about the aviation side of the story. It, like the first article, is worth your time. It cleared up a few questions I had, such as who programmed the GPS coordinates into the helicopter’s navigation system (it was not a “Command Staff” person), the handoff from the Bell 205 to the Helicopter Coordinator for directing the crew to safety, and specifics about the extraction of the crew from the landing zone.

Below is an excerpt from the Vertical article:

…Within minutes of [dozer] 1642 arriving and beginning work to access the flames, the atmosphere over the fire began to change, and very quickly. Light breezes turned to hot upslope winds as the inversion layer lifted, allowing the smoke to billow up out of the trees.

The clearing visibility through the trees now revealed a much different — and far more menacing — scenario. Fleming and the dozer operator immediately determined they would be unable to hold what was now apparently a large front of fire.

The dozer operator quickly began to back the machine back up the hill, and Fleming ordered his crew back to the designated “safe zone.”

As Fleming began walking up the hill to join his crew, he heard the sound of the dozer accelerating to what he believed to be full throttle, and the tractor’s track squealing to grab traction.

“I turned around to look, and saw sustained independent crown fire [fire jumping tree to tree in 100-foot-plus tall timber] coming right behind him,” Fleming said…

Scientists set up equipment in front of a spreading fire

(Note from Bill: A Fire Behavior Assessment Team (FBAT) has been studying the King Fire east of Placerville, California. Rae Brooks, an Information Officer at the fire, sent us this article describing what a FBAT does.)


These scientists set up equipment in front of a fire to collect fire behavior data

by Rae Brooks

FORESTHILL, Calif. — Fire scientists call them “plots.” Dotted ahead of the leading edge of the King Fire, they were deliberately placed in the anticipated path of the flaming front. Each plot contained a video camera, wind-speed gauge and other monitoring devices.

If the flames came, a data logger buried a foot underground would collect information that would allow the scientists to better understand the science of wildfire, gauge the effectiveness of fuel treatments, and contribute to firefighter safety.

So while thousands of firefighters were building line, clearing brush from roads and bulldozing contingency lines to suppress the King Fire, the scientists patiently waited for flames to sweep over their plots, if control efforts failed.

“We want our plots to burn,” said Carol Ewell, co-lead of the FBAT, or Fire Behavior Assessment Team, at the King Fire. “Firefighters put the fire out. It’s a difficult balance.”

fire behavior plot
A plot BEFORE the fire passed through. Photo by FBAT team at the King Fire.
fire behavior plot
The same plot AFTER the fire passed through. Photo by FBAT team at the King Fire.

Mark Courson, a division-qualified firefighter and an operations section trainee, served as operations lead for the FBAT at the King Fire. His job was to keep the team safe and advise on site selection.

“Usually I’m thinking of putting the fire out,” said Courson. “Now I’m bucking the system, thinking where suppression might not hold it.”

The team, a U.S. Forest Service module, draws members from around the country to work 14-day assignments on wildfires. Since 2006, the FBAT has recorded data at 16 wildfires, including last year’s Rim Fire, the third largest in California history. Generally, emerging fires with potential for growth suit the FBAT better.

At the King Fire, just three of 10 sites selected burned over. The team averages 50 percent, but sometimes gets lucky and finds all its plots burned.

“It’s a big gamble,” said Ewell. “Our success rate is quite variable, and I’m not sure that’s a hurdle that we can fix.”

The King Fire was particularly difficult to read after it made a speedy 15-mile run northward beginning late in the afternoon of Sept. 17, Ewell said. Rain has since quelled the fire, which is now 89 percent contained.

Despite the inherent difficulties, free-burning wildfires provide conditions that cannot be replicated in laboratory, experimental or prescribed fires. For instance, no prescribed fire would ever be set during California’s current historic drought. The team has recorded active crown-fire runs, fire whirls, spot-fire ignitions, and merger of spot fires with the main flame front.

The team’s prime mission at the King Fire is to study the effectiveness of fuel treatments. Team members set up plots in treated and nearby untreated areas to provide comparisons.

Because they are working ahead of the flaming front, they follow standard firefighting safety protocols, carefully considering whether they can get safely into and out of selected sites. “Unburned fuel between you and the fire,” is one of the 18 Firefighting Watch Out Situations, and, by necessity, their equipment must be placed in unburned fuel ahead of the fire.

“There is risk involved,” said team member Matt Dickinson, an ecologist at the Delaware, Ohio, location of the Forest Services’s Northern Research Station. “One way we mitigate is to set up plots early in the day before the peak burning period. We pull out quite often when we’re not feeling comfortable.”

It takes about an hour for nine FBAT members to install their gear and inventory the vegetation at each site. If firefighters are trying to build line and the team is trying to set up a plot, the firefighters, of course, have priority, said Ewell. “In comparison, we’re just a geek squad,” she said, although most FBAT members are experienced firefighters.

Some of the team's equipment. Photo by Mike McMillan.
Some of the team’s equipment. Photo by Mike McMillan.

At each plot, the team sets up temperature sensors, heat flux sensors, anemometers to measure wind speed, and video cameras encased in heat-resistant steel boxes. The cameras start when trigger wires are burned over. Each camera captures about 80 minutes of footage.

The flames often melt the anemometer’s plastic cups, so wind speeds might only be collected before flames arrive. At each site, team members also bury a data logger in a military surplus ammunition box. Other members collect information about the vegetation, down to counting sticks on the ground.

At the King Fire, the team also recorded fuel moisture data to help fire behavior analysts working on the fire.

In the future, Ewell would like to equip the team with more heat-flux sensors, Go-Pro video cameras with new triggers, and anemometers that can better withstand heat. The team relies on grant money and project funding from the Forest Service to continue its work.

When sites burn over, team members return, when it is safe, to collect their equipment and the data. They also record how the vegetation has fared. Plots that don’t burn are permanently marked with rebar, so they can provide fuels information for other uses.

The team spends evenings entering data and crunching numbers, and tries to complete a summary report before demobilizing from a fire.

Seeing a wildfire burn during severe drought has been an eye-opener, said Dickinson. Most of his experience has been with prescribed fires. He found the tremendous consumption of fuels and the severe damage to trees hard to witness.

William Borovicka, who normally works at the Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest in McArthur, Ohio, was a first-time FBAT member at the King Fire. Back home, he studies how oak and hickory forests, if left undisturbed, convert to beech and maple woods. His work in Ohio, he feels, plays into management techniques to stabilize the oaks and hickories.

Using FBAT findings to gain a deeper understanding of fire behavior might similarly help forest managers someday with decision-making, Borovicka said.

“Maybe more prescribed fires, or different harvesting techniques,” he said. “Whatever it takes to prevent this kind of blow-up.”

Crew that deployed fire shelters on King Fire had three minutes to run to a safer area

Gary Dahlen award
Pilot Gary Dahlen, center, is recognized for his actions to aid a crew that was threatened by a rapidly spreading fire. Photo courtesy of CAL FIRE.

The 12 people that deployed fire shelters on the King Fire in northern California on September 15 were in a spot near heavy timber that may or may not have been survivable, even in the shelters they had climbed under. Gary Dahlem, flying a Bell 205 overhead, told the crew that they should relocate, and they had three minutes to run out of the timber to an area with lighter fuels.

Amy Wang of the Arizona Republic interviewed Mr. Dahlem and got his story about how it all developed. Here are a couple of excepts from the beginning of her article:

The command that blared from the radio was one Gary Dahlen had never heard before, not in all his years piloting helicopters over wildfires.

“All available helicopters prepare for an emergency launch.”

He hardly knew what to make of it. “I was thinking maybe structures were threatened,” Dahlen said later.

He quickly climbed into his flight suit, then into his seat. As the helicopter’s turbo engine whined to life, someone from the fire command staff came sprinting toward the aircraft, reached in and punched latitude-and-longitude coordinates into Dahlen’s GPS.

That was when he learned the emergency: It was a shelter deployment.

We were listening to the radio traffic during the incident and live-blogged about it that day.

On September 23 Mr. Dahlen received an award for his actions.

Mr. Dahlen said receiving the accurate lat/long from the people on the ground was instrumental in him being able to find them and direct them to safety.


The article was revised to say that receiving the accurate lat/long from the people on the ground was instrumental in the pilot being able to find them and direct them to safety.