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Wildfires burn along key California highway

October 9, 2014

APPLEGATE, California (AP) — A series of small wildfires that broke out along an interstate highway brought the partial shutdown of the key road between Northern California and Nevada, while California’s fleet of 22 air tankers was grounded after one of the planes crashed while battling a wildfire in Yosemite National Park, killing the pilot.

The wildfires Wednesday grew to a combined 420 acres (170 hectares), a slight increase from the previous day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement.

In the Interstate-80 area fires northeast of the state capital Sacramento, one home in the small community of Applegate in Placer County was destroyed by the blazes while crews were searching for more possible destruction, said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Containment went from 10 to 20 percent as the total number of homes destroyed grew to five, officials 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 interstate’s eastbound shoulder, California Highway Patrol officer Mike Martis said.

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

About a dozen aircraft including air tankers and helicopters were making drops of fire retardant over the area, where a handful of homes dotted heavily forested foothills. About 80 homes were under threat, and six residential streets were under evacuation orders, CalFire said.

Meanwhile, the wildfire in Yosemite had grown to 252 acres (100 hectares) by Wednesday afternoon, a day after it broke out, though some of the smoke had lifted, said park fire information spokeswoman Jennifer Wuchner. Electricity was out in Yosemite Valley because power lines near the crash site were shut down, and park facilities were using generators, she said.

Some 60 homes in the community of Foresta were under evacuation orders.

Fire officials said that the air tanker crash occurred on Tuesday as four CalFire aircraft, including three tankers, were fighting the blaze as it climbed a steep canyon wall north of the Merced River.

The body of pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt was recovered Wednesday.

The department had helicopters, guide planes and aircraft from other agencies to take on the blaze at Yosemite and others in the state, but the S-2T tankers that were grounded indefinitely Wednesday are considered an essential resource for dealing with wildfires before they spiral out of control.

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