EL DORADO COUNTY, Calif. (CNN/KXTV/AP/NBC BAY AREA) — A northern California wildfire continues to grow, despite firefighters’ best efforts. The so-called King Fire reached more than 82,000 acres Sunday and was 17 percent contained.
A 37-year-old man charged with deliberately starting the fire entered a not guilty plea Friday.
Ironman Lake Tahoe and Ironman 70.3 Lake Tahoe operations manager Keats McGonigal said the mood was “somber” when the decision was announced just minutes before thousands of athletes prepared to begin the 2.4-mile swim in Lake Tahoe.
McGonigal says it was made for the safety of 3,000 entrants, as well as spectators and volunteers.
There were no plans to reschedule.
World Triathlon Corp. says the cancellation followed recommendations from California and Placer County health officials.
For the past 18 months, Andy Blasquez of Brentwood has been training for Sunday’s race, what was supposed to be his first and only Ironman race.
He said when he heard the announcement, he was in disbelief.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Blasquez said. “Men that are just bullet proof were just sobbing.”
But Placer County air pollution officer Tom Christofk says in a statement that sensors in Squaw Valley, Tahoe City, Kings Beach and Truckee recorded high levels of particulate matter.
He says the source was the King Fire, covering more than 128 square miles some 60 miles east of Sacramento.
Despite the unhealthy air, the canceled race meant a canceled dream for Blasquez.
He had already trained eight hours a day, while teaching and being there for his two sons and wife. Speaking to NBC Bay Area from Tahoe via Skype, he said the financial and emotional drain was not something he could likely put his family through again.
“I’m a school teacher,” Blasquez said. “I don’t know. I‘ve been dreaming about this since I was a little boy. I don’t know how we’re going to make this happen again.”
But he did agree race organizers made the right call.
“You just couldn’t see anything,” he said. “It was just thick, brown air, and It was horrible.”
In the King Fire, nearly three-dozen structures were destroyed in the massive wildfire that continues to spread more than a week after it started, officials said Sunday.
According to preliminary figures, 10 residences and 22 outbuildings were lost in the King Fire as the structures were discovered in the White Meadows area of Pollock Pines, said Capt. Tom Piranio, a state fire spokesman.
Assessment teams were headed back in the rugged, steep terrain to survey more damage, he said.t has been very challenging to get access to those burn areas because there’s a lot of inaccessible terrain,” Piranio said. “We had to make sure it was safe enough to enter.”
The fast-moving blaze located about 60 miles east of Sacramento that started Sept. 13 grew to more than 128 square miles Saturday despite periods of rain overnight. A man charged with starting the fire, Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, pleaded not guilty to arson Friday and remains in the El Dorado County jail on $10 million bail.
As of Monday morning, the fire had burned more than 87,000 acres – growing 5,000 acres overnight.
More than 21,000 structures remain threatened as the blaze remains at 17 percent contained. More than 5,000 firefighters — from as far as Florida and Alaska — are helping California crews battle the blaze that has not only consumed grass and brush, but swaths of extremely dry tall timber.
Timber that could topple as crews try to construct more contingency and control lines while attacking the blaze from multiple spots, state fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean said Sunday.
“We need to get in there and make sure that all of our hot spots and those hazardous trees are taken care of and don’t across our lines,” McLean said. “We cannot become complacent. We have to continue to work as hard as possible to get this under control.”
About 100 evacuees have been allowed to return home, but some 2,700 remain under evacuation orders, state fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. The fire also continues to threaten a key University of California, Berkeley research station that is home to scores of experiments on trees, plants and other wildlife.