Clearlake man arrested on suspicion of 17 counts of arson in Lake County
Just as some evacuations were being lifted for residents whose homes were threatened by the Clayton Fire, firefighters raced to another blaze that ignited Tuesday afternoon in the county seat of Lakeport.
The fire was small –just seven acres – but it was threatening homes. A Sacramento Bee photographer said he saw at least one building destroyed.
It was a setback to firefighters who have made significant progress against the Clayton Fire, which started over the weekend and has consumed 175 structures. On Tuesday afternoon the evacuation order was lifted for a section of Clearlake known as "The Avenues."
On Monday evening, Cal Fire announced that the Clayton fire had been set. The suspect, Damin Anthony Pashilk, 40, has a history of charges in Lake County that included drug possession and driving on a suspended license.
His arrest caused simmering anger in Lake County, where residents have endured a series of destructive wildland fires. Pashilk, who lives in Clearlake, is charged with 17 counts of arson because investigators suspect him of setting numerous other fires in Lake County over the past year.
“We believe that the individual started 17 separate fires, all in the same area of Lake County over the past year,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. “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 fire, we were able to quickly tie him to this fire and make an arrest.”
A construction worker born in San Francisco, Pashilk 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.
Pashilk has a history of drug and driving offenses in Lake County dating back to 2006.
Lake County District Attorney Dan Anderson Tuesday said Pashilk didn't have a particularly violent criminal history in Lake County – and no prior convictions for arson. He said was erroneously booked on a charge that indicated he had a prior arson conviction.
Anderson said he couldn't speak about the Clayton Fire case in detail because Cal Fire investigators hadn't yet provided him the documents that detail their allegations. He said those records would be made public after Pashilk is arraigned Wednesday afternoon.
Like others in the 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 – their homes, their cars, and, perhaps more important, a lifetime's collection of precious mementos, such as the photos that chronicle a family's history.
"Their entire lives. Their parents lives. Their children's lives. Their heirlooms are gone – and for no reason," he said.
Pashilk’s Facebook page 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.
A records search in Lake County Superior Court revealed cases stretching back 16 years. In early 2000, Pashilk was charged with with transportation and sale of a controlled substance and carrying a concealed weapon in a vehicle, as well as driving on a suspended license. The case was declared "disposed" a few months later, according to court records.
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.
An address listed for Pashilk in his most recently available court filing from 2015 traced back to a Clearlake neighborhood in a section of town with unpaved streets, a place tightly packed with rundown mobile homes and houses.
In one corner of the neighborhood Tuesday afternoon was a huge, makeshift dump site filled with garbage. The heap included trailers full of trash, a scrapped motorcycle and at least one seemingly uninhabited mobile home.
A man who was walking out of the home listed as Pashilk's address said he knew him and that he lived "around there," but "out of respect for his neighbors" he wasn't going to comment.
A spokesman for the Clearlake Police Department declined to comment on Pashilk other than to say officers knew him well.
At the community meeting Monday, Cal Fire’s Chief Ken Pimlott said the blaze has left 175 families homeless, with an estimated $10 million in damage and an additional $5 million cost to taxpayers for fire suppression.
The Clayton Fire first struck Saturday evening near Highway 29 and Clayton Creek Road in Lake County and exploded in size by Sunday night, engulfing businesses and homes as it spread, including parts of the town of Lower Lake.
Nearly 1,700 firefighters from around the state descended on Lake County to battle the blaze, officials said. Firefighters made considerable progress overnight constructing buffer lines and mopping up hot spots, Cal Fire reported Tuesday. However, increased wind and shifting direction of wind will continue to test control efforts.
“A lot of good work was done,” said Paul Lowenthal, a public information officer working the Clayton Fire. “Highway 53 is open, which is a big deal for the community. PG&E is working around-the-clock to restore power. There are snapped power poles everywhere.”
He said residents must understand that work needs to be done to clear downed power lines and take down trees that have been partially burned and present a danger.
“As our fire briefing was taking place, we got word that another large tree was coming down in Lower Lake around some homes,” Lowenthal said. “That’s why we need to do a lot of work to not only make sure that the fire is out in that area but also safe for people to re-enter.”
A dozen helicopters are still assigned to the blaze.
“We are going to continue to work hard to increase containment,” he said. “The majority of work from the sky will be done by helicopters because there is not that open flame front that we have seen. Right now, it is a lot of hot spots, a lot of mopping up. Residents will see a lot of helicopter bucket drops to support crews on the ground.”
Wendy Martin, who was forced to evacuate from her Lower Lake home on Sunday, two days after her husband died at home from liver cancer, said she was in a hotel room in Lakeport on Tuesday morning when she learned of the arson arrest on the TV news.
She said her reaction was at first disbelief. It was quickly replaced with anger. She said her county has been through so much in the past year due to catastrophic fires that the news that someone was accused of intentionally setting at least 17 fires around the area was incomprehensible, she said.
“He betrayed everybody,” she 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.
News of the arrest came Monday after a pair of community meetings were held for victims of the disaster. At one of the meetings, Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown, the wrestling coach for Kelseyville High School, wore a T-shirt from his team’s rival, Lower Lake High School. Lower Lake High survived the Clayton Fire, but the school sits adjacent to homes that were scorched to rubble in the fire.
“As of Saturday night, we’re all on the same team,” he told the crowd.
Brown said Tuesday morning that even though someone is accused of starting the Clayton Fire, that sense of community just gets stronger. While people are understandably angry, he said there's also a deep sense of relief that the spate of suspicious small fires that burned around the region are hopefully at an end.
“Because when you go through something like this that we did 11 months ago,” he said referencing the Valley Fire, “every plume of smoke invokes emotion that you can’t explain and probably won’t get away from for many, many years.”
Meanwhile, at the community meetings help Monday evening, Lake County Administrative Officer Carol Huchingson implored people not to bring items to donate to fire victims. In response to the Valley Fire last year, she said, the county was overwhelmed from the kindness and generosity of others – a situation the officials don’t want to repeat.
“The end result was the county was left with a giant mountain of goods that had to be disposed of,” Huchingson told the crowd at a meeting at Twin Pine Casino and Hotel in Middletown. “It literally cost the taxpayers a couple of hundred thousand dollars to dispose those goods.”
Huchingson urged people to donate funds instead to various community groups that are helping with the disaster.
Pimlott told reporters Monday that he could not release information on any other fires that investigators suspect Pashilk set. However, the cause for two of last year’s three big Lake County wildland blazes already have been determined.
Last year’s devastating Valley Fire, which killed four people and burned 1,281 homes, mostly in Lake County, was caused by a homeowner's faulty wiring of a hot tub, Cal Fire investigators recently concluded.
The cause of the Rocky Fire, which destroyed 43 homes and burned 69,438 acres in Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties in July and August 2015, was caused by a faulty water heater inside an outbuilding.
Still under investigation is the Jerusalem Fire, which burned more than 25,000 acres last summer in Lake and Napa counties.
The announcement of Pashilk’s arrest was met with anger and cheers from those gathered outside the casino, many of whom had lost homes or were unsure if their houses were still standing.
Some members of the crowd yelled “burn him” and “string him up” as Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin named Pashilk as a suspect and unveiled a large photograph of him.