In 2014, California was burning. Dried to a crisp by drought, the state’s forests were being ravaged by wildfires, numbering 8,000 in all by the end of the year.
Among the most devastating blazes was the King fire in El Dorado County, which ignited on Sept. 13, 2014, and raged on for 27 days. Its name derived from its starting point on King of the Mountain Road in Pollock Pines, Calif., but as the fires traveled through large swathes of the county, defying containment, the “King fire” lives on in infamy.
In all, the fire covered 97,000 acres, and was at times larger in size than cities like Atlanta, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Portland. By the end, it had destroyed a dozen homes and countless out-buildings.
Though no one was killed, thousands were forced to evacuate the area.
Behind the destruction was a single 37-year-old man, Wayne Allen Huntsman, who pleaded guilty to setting the King fire last Friday. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $60 million in restitution to victims.
The sentence was the maximum allowable for Huntsman’s crimes, which began with a display of bravado that would lead to a self-incriminating piece of evidence.
The firefighters who first descended into the scorching woods discovered that the King fire had multiple points of origin. The El Dorado District Attorney’s Office knew immediately that they had an arson on their hands.
Within days, they also had a suspected arsonist.
Lars Knutsen, a retired firefighter, was driving past the scene of the fire when he encountered a man fleeing the forest. According to prosecutors, Knutsen offered to give the man, Huntsman, a ride out of the area.
Huntsman, himself a former inmate firefighter, got into the car and began spinning the tale of how he narrowly escaped death. He even had footage to prove it, he told Knutsen as he pulled out his phone.
Huntsman played a selfie video that showed himself standing in a clearing in the forest with fires distantly burning on either side of him.
“I got fire all around me,” Huntsman said in the recording. “I got fire right there,” he pointed and moved the camera in a circle, “Look at me, babe. I got fire right there.”
Clad in a blue T-shirt and a camouflage-print hat, Huntsman breathed out: “I’m stuck in the middle, babe.”
He smiled as he showed the video to Knutsen, who was in turn recording it on his own phone. He never suspected that Knutsen would the pass footage along to investigators.
Earlier that day, Huntsman had also come across a couple, Sheila and Stephen Mancuso, who asked him what he was doing at the scene of the fire. The Mancusos told authorities that Huntsman gave them vague answers, and issued a warning: “You better get home. Your house is going to burn down.”
Like Knutsen, the pair took their suspicions to the police, who arrested Huntsman days later. He remained in a jail cell as his handiwork continued its seemingly relentless cross-county journey. On the day the fire was ignited, firefighters thought they had heard him crying for help, but now they had other ideas about his motivations.
“Was this arsonist lighting more fires in an attempt to trap the fireman, cover his tracks, or make sure the entire forest burned to the ground?” speculated a video released by the county district attorney.
The release of Huntsman’s own “selfie” video on Friday coincided with his guilty plea and conviction. Police had previously determined that it was taken at the King fire’s point of origin.
He had lit the fire to stay warm after a long hike, Huntsman told police. Yet the temperature that day was a record-breaking 93 degrees.
No one knows why he really did it, or why he wanted video documentation. Perhaps it was to gain “hero status” within the community, or to get in good graces with his girlfriend, prosecutors suggested.
According to KSBW, Huntsman is originally from Santa Cruz and moved to Pollock Pines in June 2013 to do odd jobs. His sister, Tami Huntsman, has been charged with murdering two children in an unrelated case and is awaiting trial.
In court last week, Reuters reported, Huntsman said simply: “I plead guilty because I did it.”
His admission came one day before dozens of volunteers converged at the site of the fire over the weekend in the hopes of restoring the forest’s original splendor. The Sacramento Bee reported that the volunteers “ranged from children to senior citizens. They were members of the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, the Auburn Kiwanis Club and an off-road-vehicle club, among others.”
They planted hundreds of pine seedlings at a campground that had been razed.
“The fire did devastate the forest, but the forest is dynamic,” Maria Mircheva, executive director of the Sugar Pine Foundation, a nonprofit that helped organize the planting, told the Bee. “It is a rebirth and not just devastation.”
The revival will take time. Ten years to reforest 10,000 acres, one district ranger estimated.
Meanwhile Huntsman will sit in jail, unable to see the seedlings rise from the dirt and stretch toward the sky, one day filling the grounds with green anew.