Clayton Fire evacuees react to news of arson
As some evacuations were lifted in Lake County and danger from the Clayton Fire waned, a picture of the man accused of setting the 4,000-acre blaze that destroyed 175 homes began to emerge Tuesday.
Damin Anthony Pashilk, 40, was arrested Monday on suspicion of multiple counts of arson including setting the Clayton Fire over the weekend. He is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday in Lake Superior Court, in the county seat of Lakeport.
“We believe that the individual started 17 separate fires, all in the same area of Lake County, over the past year,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said Tuesday. “Once we started seeing a pattern of repeated fires, around the same period, around the same area, our investigators were on high alert.
“Fortunately, with that high alert, and, with the fact we sent an investigator in the initial dispatch of the (Clayton Fire), we were able to quickly tie him to this fire and make an arrest.”
Pashilk has a history of criminal charges in Lake and Napa counties, going back at least two decades. He trained as an inmate firefighter while serving a five-year sentence for illegal possession of drugs and firearms, at the California Correctional Center in Susanville. He was assigned to Trinity Camp in Lewiston from April to July 2007.
Pashilk was returned to custody six times for parole violations but did not serve again as a firefighter, said Vicky Waters, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
His arrest on suspicion of arson caused anger in Lake County, where residents have endured a series of major wildfires in the past year that have decimated the area’s small communities and rural homesteads.
A 10-acre fire that flared up Tuesday in Lakeport, threatening homes before it was contained, was a reminder of the precariously dry conditions in Lake County that have allowed small blazes to erupt into firestorms, claiming lives and property.
That was the case with last summer’s three major blazes in Lake County – the Rocky, Jerualem and Valley fires. Combined, the fires burned more than 170,000 acres, destroyed 1,330 homes, and killed four people.
The Clayton Fire sprung up over the weekend and quickly grew out of control, roaring through the small town of Lower Lake and threatening the much larger community of Clearlake.
An army of nearly 1,700 firefighters – with 200 fire engines, a dozen helicopters and six air tankers – has made significant progress against the fire, holding it to 4,000 acres and upping containment to 35 percent Tuesday.
Some evacuated residents have been allowed to return home after several days of uncertainty.
On Tuesday afternoon, an evacuation order was lifted for a section of Clearlake known as The Avenues, which had been threatened by the wind-driven fire starting Sunday.
Juan Perez and his family were among those who went home. They were reunited with their dog Rosie, a terrier, who was so happy to see them she would barely eat.
Perez said it was a relief seeing his house again.
“It’s still standing, he said. “We’re happy about that.”
According to recent court records, Pashilk lives in a part of Clearlake with unpaved streets packed with rundown mobile homes and houses. One corner of the neighborhood had a large makeshift dump site filled with garbage Tuesday. The trash heap included trailers, a scrapped motorcycle and an apparently uninhabited mobile home.
A man who was walking out of a nearby house, listed as Pashilk’s address, said he knew Pashilk, who he said lived “around there.” But the man said he didn’t want to comment “out of respect for his neighbors.”
A spokesman for the Clearlake Police Department declined to comment on Pashilk other than to say officers knew him well.
Pashilk, identified in arrest records as a construction worker born in San Francisco, will likely face enhanced arson charges for allegedly setting fires that caused the destruction of homes and businesses, authorities said.
The announcement of his arrest Monday was made at a community meeting at the Twin Pine Casino and Hotel in Middletown, a small community devastated by last year’s Valley Fire.
When Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin named Pashilk as a suspect and unveiled a large photograph of him, some in the crowd cheered and others yelled “hang him” and “you’re going to hell.”
Pashilk has a history of drug and driving offenses in Lake County dating back to 2006.
Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson said Tuesday that Pashilk didn’t have a particularly violent criminal history in Lake County and that he’d never been convicted of arson. Pashilk had been erroneously booked on a charge that indicated he had a prior arson conviction, the prosecutor said.
Anderson said he couldn’t speak about the Clayton Fire case because investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection hadn’t yet provided him the documents that detail their allegations. Those documents would be made public after Pashilk is arraigned Wednesday afternoon, he said.
Pashilk is being held in the Lake County jail with bail set at $5 million.
Like others in Lake County, Anderson said he struggles to fathom how someone could intentionally set fires in a region that has been battered and scorched by so many fires in so short a time.
He said that because of Pashilk’s actions, dozens of people in Lower Lake lost everything – homes, cars, family photos.
“Their entire lives. Their parents’ lives. Their children’s lives. Their heirlooms are gone, and for no reason,” he said.
Pashilk’s Facebook cover photo includes a pair of SS lightning bolt neo-Nazi symbols, figures associated with white supremacy.
In 2009, the Lake County News reported that when police knocked on the door of a Napa home, a man identified as Pashilk answered, loaded handgun in hand. Pashilk, who was wanted for parole violations, was placed under arrest.
In 2006, he was sentenced to three years in state prison after pleading guilty to possession of a controlled substance and driving on a suspended license.
In 2015, he was ordered to spend 55 days in the Lake County jail after pleading no contest to driving with a suspended license.
In that case, prosecutors said in court documents that between 2009 and 2011, Pashilk had been convicted at least six times in Lake, Shasta and Yolo counties on charges of driving on a suspended license.
Wendy Martin was forced to evacuate from her Lower Lake home on Sunday, two days after her husband died at the house from liver cancer. She was in a motel room in Lakeport on Tuesday morning when she learned of the arson arrest from TV news.
Her reaction at first was disbelief, quickly followed by anger. She said her county has been through so much in the past year because of catastrophic fires. The news that someone was accused of intentionally setting fires around the area was incomprehensible, she said.
“He betrayed everybody,” Martin said. “I just don’t know how to explain it. I’m just beyond being able to comprehend that a person would do this to a whole town.”
She said she still doesn’t know if her home survived.