As residents of the tiny town of Lower Lake began returning to their destroyed or damaged homes, the man accused of setting the Clayton Fire appeared Wednesday in a packed Lakeport courtroom to face charges that he started not only that destructive blaze, but many others in the same vicinity.
Residents, reporters and television camera operators crammed into the courtroom as arson charges were formally read in Lake Superior Court against Damin Anthony Pashilk, 40, a construction worker with a history of criminal charges in Lake and Napa counties stretching back at least two decades, most either for drug possession or driving on a suspended license.
Pashilk entered the hushed courtroom shackled and hiding his face from the photographers, who filled seats four rows deep. He faces 19 charges, including aggravated arson, arson of forestland, and arson with damages in excess of $7 million. He also faces a count of methamphetamine possession and a charge of driving on a suspended license.
Pashilk did not enter a plea Wednesday. He is being held at the Lake County jail with bail set at $5 million. His next court appearance is Sept. 7.
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Lake County prosecutors allege Pashilk set a dozen fires, including the Clayton Fire and July 2015’s Long Fire, set on forestland at Highway 20 east of New Long Valley Road, and attempted to set a 13th, all between July 2, 2015, and last weekend. Investigators have tallied the damage from the Clayton Fire at more than $7 million.
“We are very confident that this is our guy,” said Scott McLean, spokesman for Cal Fire, the agency investigating the blaze, at a news conference following the afternoon arraignment. He called Pashilk a “serial arsonist.”
“When something like this happens, it devastates us all,” he said.
Pashilk learned firefighting skills while serving time at the California Correctional Center in Susanville.
At the news conference, McLean acknowledged Pashilk received two months of fire training while in prison in 2007 on drug and firearms charges, but said the man “never went out on the line, never fought any fires.” The Cal Fire spokesman also brushed aside speculation that Pashilk’s training motivated the alleged arson.
“It may have given him knowledge of fire behavior,” McLean said, “but it’s not a motive behind the fire.”
McLean said Pashilk’s home burned in 2013, but did not specify the extent of the damage.
Anger is running high in Lake County, where some residents attending a community meeting Monday night in Middletown yelled “hang him” when officials announced Pashilk’s arrest.
Brian Martin, Lake County sheriff, said authorities “have concern for (Pashilk’s) safety. There are a lot of emotional responses, a lot of chatter on social media.”
Fire crews continue to gain ground on the blaze, which roared to life Saturday and Sunday and tore through the tiny, economically depressed town of Lower Lake, destroying 175 structures and forcing thousands of residents from their homes. Containment of the Clayton Fire was at 55 percent Thursday morning.
Some Lower Lake residents returned to their homes Wednesday to begin assessing the damage. The evacuation center in Kelseyville had just 15 people Wednesday, down from 60 on Tuesday.
As they returned, residents asked each other about reports of looting and tried to protect boats and cars that somehow escaped a blaze that consumed houses. So far, a heavy presence of firefighters and PG&E repair crews had reassured residents their properties were safe.
Jamie Gekas, 63, lost five houses and several barns on a 30-acre property that had been in his wife’s family since 1962. He built the family’s main house in 1985. It was a two-story Victorian-style home that had vanished from the landscape in the fire.
“We were more or less the library for the family,” keeping photographs and toys that had been in the family for generations, he said.
They’re all gone.
“Everything we wanted to keep is gone,” said his daughter, Tarin Benson, 36. “My kids won’t have anything for us to pass on to them.”
The family also lost one of its nine horses. Another miniature pony is at UC Davis veterinary hospital receiving treatment for burns and damage to his lungs.
Benson reached the horse Sunday while flames licked the family’s property. She brought water to the animals and held the injured pony for most of the night.
She’s the principal at Lower Lake Elementary School. One of its classrooms was destroyed and five more were damaged. Her staff members had a meeting Wednesday to prepare for the first day of school this week.
They’ve received donations of full backpacks stuffed with supplies from neighboring towns. It’s not clear yet how many of her students have been displaced by the fire.
The family met with an insurance representative Wednesday. They’re bracing for a long period of rebuilding but acknowledged they’re better off than some neighbors. “At least we have a daughter to take care of us,” said Gekas, who is staying at Benson’s home.