By Keith Coffman
(Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown on Friday issued an emergency declaration for a wildfire burning in the northern part of the state, the same day that the man accused of starting the blaze was charged with arson.
The so-called Ponderosa Fire has burned 3,680 acres (1,490 hectares) and destroyed 20 homes in Butte County, prompting authorities to issue evacuation orders to residents of some 500 homes in the area. It was 30 percent contained on Friday, unchanged from the day before.
The blaze is burning east of the town of Oroville, about 85 miles north of the state capital of Sacramento.
The declaration will free up additional resources to battle the blaze, which erupted on Tuesday from a campfire that was started outside a designated area.
The man charged with starting the fire, John Ballenger, made his first court appearance in Butte County Superior Court on Friday, District Attorney Michael Ramsey said in a telephone interview.
Ballenger is charged with two counts of arson for recklessly starting the fire and was ordered held on a $1 million bond, Ramsey said. Ballenger could face up to seven years and eight months in prison, Ramsey said.
The charges include provisions for enhanced sentencing if he is convicted because multiple structures burned and some of the homes were occupied at the time the fire ignited, Ramsey said.
Ballenger was appointed a public defender and is due back in court to enter a plea on Wednesday, Ramsey said. The public defender's office could not be reached for comment.
Ballenger was camping on property that his family owns, Ramsey said.
"He had a campfire burning 24-7," the district attorney said.
In Montana, Governor Steve Bullock on Friday declared a state of disaster due to wildfires as dozens raged across tens of thousands of acres during one of the worst fire seasons in state history.
Bone-dry conditions, high winds and triple-digit temperatures pose "an imminent threat" to residents, Bullock said in the disaster declaration, which would allow the state to mobilize additional Montana National Guard troops and tap other state resources to combat the blazes.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Richard Chang)