Arson Arrest Announced in Devastating Lake County Fire

The warehouse for a candlemaking business, reduced to charred rubble after the Clayton Fire swept through downtown Lower Lake.  (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

LOWER LAKE -- A Lake County man was arrested Monday on arson charges for allegedly starting a wildfire that exploded over the weekend, destroying more than 175 homes, businesses and other structures here, authorities said.

Authorities announced Monday night that Damin Pashilk, 40, of Clearlake, faces 17 counts of arson in connection with the Clayton Fire and several other blazes in Lake County.
Authorities announced Monday night that Damin Pashilk, 40, of Clearlake, faces 17 counts of arson in connection with the Clayton Fire and several other blazes in Lake County. (Cal Fire)

Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said Damin Anthony Pashilk, 40, of Clearlake was arrested Monday on 17 counts of arson and is in jail. He is suspected in numerous fires in Lake County over the past year.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said the blaze in the town of Lower Lake, dubbed the Clayton Fire, has caused over $10 million in damages and left dozens of families homeless.

"Mr. Pashilk committed a horrific crime, and we will seek prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. My thoughts continue to be with the people of Lake County during this difficult time," Pimlott said.

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The wind-whipped fire had spread to 4,000 acres -- about six and a half square miles -- in the Lower Lake area about 80 miles north of San Francisco.

The fire is just 5 percent contained, though late Monday fire officials said no other structures were under direct threat.

Tough Conditions for Fire Crews

Heat topping 100 degrees and occasional gusty winds bedeviled firefighters Monday, and the forecast called for continued heat in the rugged country at the southeast end of Clear Lake.

The Clayton Fire started Saturday evening and moved slowly until midday Sunday. Rapidly rising temperatures and gusty winds whipped it into an inferno that roared into Lower Lake and wiped out whole blocks, authorities said.

Lower Lake is home to about 1,300 mostly working-class people and retirees who are drawn by its rustic charm and housing prices that are lower than the Bay Area.

Firefighters couldn't protect all of historic Main Street, and flames burned a winery, an antiques store, an old firehouse and the Habitat for Humanity office.

The organization was raising money to help rebuild homes in nearby communities torched last year. Between them, the four blazes have destroyed more than 1,400 of the 36,000 housing units in all Lake County.

The fire in Lower Lake reduced businesses to little more than charred foundations that were still smoldering on Monday. All that remained of many homes was burnt patio furniture and appliances, and burned out cars in the driveways.

The warehouse for a candlemaking business, reduced to charred rubble after the Clayton Fire swept through downtown Lower Lake.
The warehouse for a candlemaking business, reduced to charred rubble after the Clayton Fire swept through downtown Lower Lake. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)
Cal Fire map shows location of Clayton Fire relative to areas burned by three big Lake County fires of 2015.
Cal Fire map shows location of Clayton Fire relative to areas burned by three big Lake County fires of 2015. (Cal Fire)

No injuries have been reported and the cause of the fire that broke out Saturday was unknown.

Last summer, three major wildfires swept the countryside around Lower Lake. Those blazes climaxed in September when the Valley Fire ravaged Middletown and communities on Cobb Mountain. The fire killed four people, left a fifth missing and destroyed more than 1,300 homes.

Despite getting some rain last winter and spring, Lake County is tinder dry. Lawns in front of Lower Lake's modest, one-story homes are brown, matching the wildland grasses on the mountains outside town.

In wetter times, the region was not visited by the kind of wildfires that it's seen over the past year.

Other than a pair of large blazes in the 1960s, which destroyed far fewer homes in a county that had just one-quarter its current 64,000 residents, lifelong resident and county Supervisor Jim Comstock can't remember anything approaching the past year.

'Everybody on Edge'

Residents have a new view of the wild beauty they've always admired. Comstock said when his wife sees tall grass, she wonders aloud when the property owner will cut it. After 1,500 acres burned last year on the 1,700-acre ranch where Comstock grew up and still lives, he has cleared out brush to make fire breaks -- a ritual familiar to other Californians who live in areas traditionally associated with wildfires.

"Everybody is just on edge," he said. "The trees are beautiful, but when they catch fire, they carry fire."

Retirees Denis and Carolyn Quinn evacuated once last year and again this weekend, when they grabbed family photos and fled the house they share just off Main Street with their adult daughter and granddaughter.

Last time, their property was spared. On Sunday, they were let back in briefly to see that only their home and the one next door still stood among the 15 or so homes on the block.

For Denis Quinn, it was a sign from God that the couple should not succumb to thoughts of leaving due to the wildfire threat.

"It's a poor community," he said at a high school opened to evacuees about 20 miles from town. "There are a lot of people who are down here, down on their luck. I really feel for people and think that we can stay and help them."

AP writers Kristin J. Bender in San Francisco and Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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