Deepening the woes of a region already ravaged by fire, a fast-moving blaze, allegedly the work of a serial arsonist, torched buildings in the small downtown of Lower Lake and fanned out Monday through tinder-dry foothills, destroying 175 homes and other structures.
The Clayton Fire, which ignited Saturday evening near Highway 29 and Clayton Creek Road in Lake County, burned four homes the first day. On Sunday night it exploded, devouring brush, trees, houses and businesses. By Monday afternoon, it had scorched 4,000 acres.
More than 1,600 firefighters from around the state attacked the blaze Monday, trying to protect at least 1,000 additional structures in the Clearlake area, said Tyler Patamakomol, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. But they had achieved only 5 percent containment.
“The main thing is just trying to get that containment line around it,” Patamakomol said. “There is dry vegetation. That’s been the main thing. California is just super, super dry. If the fire gets into structures, it just blows up.”
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Authorities arrested a 40-year-old Clearlake man Monday on suspicion of 17 counts of arson in connection with numerous fires in Lake County over the past year, including the Clayton Fire. Damin Anthony Pashilk was booked in the Lake County Jail on Monday after an investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
“The residents of Lake County have experienced senseless loss and endured significant hardship over the past year,” Chief Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire, said in a statement Monday night. “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.”
Amid historic drought conditions, Lake County lately has been ground zero for the state’s fire devastation.
In September, the Valley Fire, the third most damaging in California history based on property loss, tore through 76,067 acres in Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties, killing four people and leveling 1,280 homes. A month earlier, the Jerusalem Fire scorched 25,118 acres and destroyed six homes. That blaze overlapped with the Rocky Fire, which burned 69,439 acres and 43 homes, from July 29 to Aug. 13 last year.
“We are all devastated to have so much destruction,” said Melissa Fulton, chief executive officer with the Lake County Chamber of Commerce. “We feel we were put through hell last year and now we are in it again.”
By Monday morning, the latest fury of fire had destroyed a Tuscan-style downtown winery in Lower Lake, 100 miles from Sacramento. Other buildings in the tiny downtown had scorched walls and broken windows. Behind them stood the skeletons of dozens of burned-down homes.
The fire had grown so hot that it had turned aluminum rims on heat-mangled vehicles into rivulets of molten metal. A frightened white cat, stained with soot, ran up to where a house had stood, looked up and wandered off, seemingly confused.
After fleeing the fire as it raged toward their Lower Lake home on Stage Coach Lane on Sunday, Tim O’Connell and his girlfriend, Jennifer Lara-Rivas, turned a gravel parking lot at Kelseyville High School – one of three Lake County evacuation centers – into a makeshift campsite.
Evacuees, many of them elderly, lay or sat on cots under the gym’s air conditioning and out of the hot sun. Groups of volunteers buzzed about, carrying pillows, food and distributing necessities such as adult undergarments.
O’Connell and Rivas had pitched a tent next to their Ford Expedition. On Monday morning, two of their cats sat outside in a cage by the left wheel. Their two dogs and O’Connell’s son, 15-year-old Lucah, sat inside the SUV as Astrid, Lara-Rivas’ 2 1/2 -year-old, played in a lawn chair.
“I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night,” O’Connell said. He described a frantic evacuation as the flames began erupting in their neighborhood, raging closer and closer. He fretted for two larger cats that they couldn’t gather up as flames were surrounding the residence. “The cats are scared to death, I’m sure. They mean a lot to us,” he said.
Later Monday, the couple hugged and cried after a friend told them the back third of their house was destroyed, along with their chicken coop.
They moved their tent from the parking lot to a grassy area behind the high school gym, where the Red Cross is putting people and pets with tents. The couple was raising a portable blue shade structure over the tent Monday afternoon. Placing the shade structure over their tent had an air of permanence. This was going to be their home for a while.
Cal Fire officials said 4,000 Lake County residents have been ordered evacuated since the fire broke out. Other evacuation centers were opened at Twin Pine Casino in Middletown and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 3500 Hill Road in East Lakeport, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office reported. The Red Cross said about 170 people stayed at the three shelters Sunday night.
This new fire is burning near territory scorched last year by the three other major fires that wracked the economically struggling county. Fire officials said Monday that they were working to protect homes north and west of Clearlake. Nearly 200 engines, aided by 26 bulldozers, 20 water tenders, six fire-retardant dropping planes and 12 helicopters, were battling the blaze.
Officials said they were aided Monday afternoon by the fact that the fire was burning toward areas scorched by the previous Rocky Fire, with heavily scarred hillsides now a potential firebreak.
Morgan Valley Road, which turns into Main Street in Lower Lake, was lined with fire trucks, many of them stained pink with fire retardant dropped from air tankers that buzzed the city nonstop on Sunday, dropping load after load in a desperate effort to save the town. The turn-off into town at the intersection of Morgan Valley and Highway 53 also was smeared with pink.
Nearby, Ottis Pearson stood at the blocked entrance to the town Monday morning. While he knew the family’s home survived the fire – it helped that it was near the fire chief’s house, he mused – he was hoping to get inside to check on his family’s pet tortoise, Tippy.
“What he did was dug him a hole in the front yard – about 2 feet,” he said. “We couldn’t get him out. We had to leave him there.”
Pearson’s wife, Tammy, said later in a Facebook message that Tippy, 11 years old, had died. “I can’t stop crying. He was one of the family,” she wrote.
Around Lower Lake, some areas remained too dangerous to enter, making it hard for officials to calculate the total extent of residential and commercial structures burned in the community of 1,300 residents.
Doug Pittman, a Cal Fire spokesman, said it may be days before many residents are allowed back in. However, Pittman said residents whose homes weren’t destroyed may be allowed in with official escorts to retrieve some possessions.
Across the road from the turn-off into the disaster area, Adam Alfinda, 32, slept in his car overnight at a gas station. A law enforcement officer took him behind the fire line Sunday night so that he could check on his home and his four dogs.
He said it was still standing and his dogs were fine. But his was one of the only homes not burned on his street. He said that with this latest tragedy following the disasters last summer, it feels like the area is under assault.
“It is really stressful,” Alfinda said. “A lot of people around here are poor and broke and don’t have much, so when something like this comes, it doesn’t make it easier.”
Not far away on Mill Street, Alma Andrade also slept in a pickup overnight with her husband, Jose Vega, and their two boys. Their truck was across the street from their mobile home that they lived in for eight years. It survived, but the houses next door burned to the ground, and fire crews were hosing down their smoking remains Monday morning.
In one yard, a twisted, melted plastic toddler swing and slide sat on what remained of the burned front yard, beside the firefighters’ hoses.
“It’s sad to see our neighborhood like this,” Andrade said. “We’re glad to have our house. We’re so sad because a lot of people lost their houses.”
Pearson, who moved to Lake County 10 years ago for its rustic setting, said repeated, catastrophic fires are wearing down his sense of security and serenity.
“It’s peaceful here. That’s why I’m here,” he said, adding: “It’s about these wildfires now. It’s kind of scary.”