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Crews battling explosive Northern California wildfire drop record-setting amounts of retardant

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PLACERVILLE, California — A massive Northern California wildfire is burning so explosively because of the prolonged drought that firefighters are finding normal amounts of retardant aren't stopping the flames. And so they are dropping record-breaking amounts — more than 203,000 gallons in one day alone.

By Friday, state firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service together had bombarded the conflagration with more than a half-million gallons of the red slurry, said Lynne Tolmachoff, a state fire spokeswoman.

But the fire activity is so extreme it's pushing through their lines.

"They can slow it down a little bit. But they're not able to hold it long enough to get ground units in there to extinguish it before it burns through and continues its path," Tolmachoff said.

The King Fire, which authorities said was deliberately set, has chewed through nearly 120 square miles of timber and vegetation about 60 miles east of Sacramento. It was 10 percent contained.

The blaze in steep terrain forced the evacuation of 2,800 people and burned multiple structures in the White Meadows area of Pollock Pines, but details of the damage were not yet available because officials can't assess the area until it's safe to do so. One resident who has been helping carve fire lines with his bulldozer told the Sacramento Bee he lost his home on White Meadows Road when he went to check on it Friday.

"My house got burned. My house is gone. My outbuildings are gone," Tom Boscow said. "I just wish I'd been here."

The fire is threatening a key University of California, Berkeley research station that is home to scores of experiments on trees, plants and other wildlife. It is also threatening hydroelectric facilities and power lines that deliver water and electricity to the Sacramento region and some treasured Sierra Nevada recreations areas, the Bee reported. Some power stations and lines either burned or were shut down as a precaution, cutting off energy from three utility agencies' hydroelectric reservoirs.

The man suspected of setting the fire, Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, pleaded not guilty to an arson charge Friday in El Dorado County Superior Court. He was being held on $10 million bail.

Authorities have not said what evidence they have linking Huntsman to the fire, by far the largest of about a dozen fires burning statewide.

PHOTO: Firefighters from the US Forest Service, pours clean up hot spots of the King fire in the El Dorado National Forest near Georgetown, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.   More than 3,500 firefighters from various agencies are battling the blaze that started Saturday and has burned more than 70,000 acres.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Firefighters from the US Forest Service, pours clean up hot spots of the King fire in the El Dorado National Forest near Georgetown, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. More than 3,500 firefighters from various agencies are battling the blaze that started Saturday and has burned more than 70,000 acres.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The record retardant drop occurred Wednesday, and Thursday was another heavy day. Authorities reduced drops on Friday because smoke affected visibility for pilots.

Firefighters have used retardant — a water-and-fertilizer mix colored with red dye — since the 1950s to slow the advance of wildfires, but the practice is controversial because of its potential effect on wildlife. The Forest Service recently adjusted its retardant rules after two lawsuits that alleged the drops were killing fish, damaging watersheds and harming endangered species.

The agency now can't drop retardant within 300 feet of bodies of water on federal forest land and can't dump the slurry in certain exclusion zones designed to protect endangered plant species. The only exception is if people are in immediate danger from flames.

Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said the intended purpose of retardant was "an initial attack tool in very remote fires" to buy time for crews to get to the scene and dig fire lines.

"But now we're seeing a dramatic increase in the amount of retardant being dumped because we're not just using it in those remote wilderness areas, but we're using it on every fire, everywhere, and there are more fires," he said.

The Forest Service used 12 million gallons of retardant nationwide last year, and 60 percent of it was dumped on California fires, Stahl said.

The federal restrictions don't apply to California firefighters, and Cal Fire has increased the amount of retardant during the past decade.

Tolmachoff, the state fire spokeswoman, didn't know how many gallons her agency dropped on fires last year. But she said retardant use was rising because of the addition of bigger DC-10 air tankers, expanding populations in fire-prone areas and the increasing size and frequency of fires caused by drought.

"Our main goal in California is to protect lives and the property and resources, and we put every effort we can into it," she said.


Flaccus reported from Tustin, California. Associated Press writer Fenit Nirappil in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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Video:
PHOTO: An out-of-control Northern California wildfire has nearly 2,800 people from their homes as it continues to grow, authorities said Thursday. Authorities said a man has been arrested on suspicion of arson for starting the fire on Saturday. (Sept. 18)
An out-of-control Northern California wildfire has nearly 2,800 people from their homes as it continues to grow, authorities said Thursday. Authorities said a man has been arrested on suspicion of arson for starting the fire on Saturday. (Sept. 18)
Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Fire burns near a 'Stop' sign  near Uncle Tom's Cabin in El Dorado County on Thursday,  Sept. 18, 2014. The King fire has burned over 70,000 acres. The wind-whipped fire burned through 114 square miles and was 10 percent contained, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. (AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Randall Benton)
Click to view (18 Photos)

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