Clayton fire arson suspect had previously worked as inmate firefighter, authorities say
Firefighters work to contain embers on the remains of a house destroyed by the Clayton fire in Lower Lake, California.(Gabrielle Lurie / AFP/Getty Images)
A marijuana plant is seen covered in fire retardant material in Lower Lake, Calif.(Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)
Damin Pashilk, seen here in a poster on display at a news briefing in Middletown, Calif., was arrested on arson charges. Officials say he sparked a wildfire that exploded over the weekend in the Northern California town of Lower Lake.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
A house burns in Lower Lake, Calif., during the Clayton fire.(Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Juan Tapia, left, and Alicia Palominos hug their granddaughter Emily Avalos, 1, during a news conference where it was announced that a California man had been arrested on arson charges in connection with a wildfire in Lower Lake, Calif.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
A house off Winchester Street in Lower Lake, Calif., is in ruins due to the Clayton fire.(Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Tyrol Martin of the U.S. Forest Service douses flames as a structure burns near the town of Lower Lake, Calif.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
Multi-agency fire crews battle a wildfire as structures catch on fire in Lower Lake, Calif.(Hector Amezcua / Sacramento Bee)
Hannah Lee coordinates with a friend to save horses as flames approach the town of Lower Lake.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
A firefighter rescues goats as flames envelope the area in Lower Lake.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
Firefighters make a water drop near Lower Lake.(Hector Amezcua / Sacramento Bee)
Multi-agency fire crews battle the fast-moving Clayton fire, which broke out late Saturday.(Hector Amezcua / The Sacramento Bee)
A truck burns in the town of Lower Lake. A wildfire destroyed homes and forced thousands of people in two Northern California towns to flee as flames jumped a road and moved into populated areas.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
A firefighter battles flames as a house is engulfed in the town of Lower Lake, located more than 100 miles north of San Francisco.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
Firefighters battle flames as a house burns in Lower Lake.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
Firefighters work to control flames as the Terrill Cellars Winery burns along Main Street in Lower Lake.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
A helicopter drops water on Lower Lake, where signs and lamp posts are covered in fire retardant.(Josh Edelson / Associated Press)
A suspected serial arsonist charged with starting the Clayton fire that destroyed more than 175 buildings in Northern California this week worked as an inmate firefighter while in prison for drug and weapons charges years ago, authorities said.
Damin Pashilk, of Clearlake, faces 17 counts of arson in connection with the 4,000-acre Clayton fire in Lake County, as well as numerous others set in the area in recent months, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Ken Pimlott said.
Pashilk had been under investigation for about a year and has a lengthy criminal record, authorities said.
When Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin announced Pashilk’s arrest at a community meeting in Middletown late Monday, weary residents — including some who had lost homes to the fire — cheered.
“String him up!” someone shouted.
“You’re going to hell, bud!” someone else yelled.
Here in this rural pocket, besieged last year by a string of deadly wildfires, news that the Clayton fire was attributed to arson was met with fury but little surprise. The arson rumors started about as soon as the Clayton fire did, residents said. This summer has been full of smaller fires — far too many to blame on bad luck.
“We that call Lake County home know that the fire activity that we’ve been experiencing over the last couple of years is definitely not normal,” Martin said Monday. “Fires don’t just simply start.”
The fast-moving Clayton fire started late Saturday afternoon off Highway 29 and Clayton Creek Road, according to Cal Fire. Thousands of people in the small towns of Lower Lake and Clearlake were evacuated because of the fire, which was 20% contained Tuesday.
It remains unclear how arson investigators linked Pashilk to the blaze or how it started. Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday declared a state of emergency in Lake County to help expedite aid to those affected by the fire.
Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, said arson is to blame in a small number of wildland fires in California. Most wildland fires, he said, are started by humans accidentally, and half of the ones in the mountains are caused by lightning strikes.
“It is very unusual to catch an arsonist so close to the fire starting,” said Stephens, who has spent decades studying fire behavior. Often, he said, it take years of investigation and other fires to eventually reveal the culprit.
The Clayton fire ravaged tiny Lower Lake, blazing through its Main Street commercial district. A Habitat for Humanity office, whose staff had been helping victims of last year’s fires rebuild their homes, was destroyed. So was a Methodist church.
Lake County Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Hinchcliff said prosecutors expect to arraign Pashilk on Wednesday. He was being held in the Lake County jail on $5.1-million bail, Hinchcliff said.
Pashilk has been arrested more than 20 times throughout Northern California during the last two decades, a law enforcement source said. He was arrested at least a dozen times in Lake County for a variety of offenses, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Pashilk worked as an inmate firefighter while serving a five-year prison term for drug and weapons convictions years ago, state corrections officials said. He was trained at the California Correctional Center in Susanville and assigned to Trinity Camp in Lewiston from April 12, 2007, through July 5, 2007, Vicky Waters, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Pashilk was committed to state prison from Lake County in January 2002 and was released on parole on July 25, 2007. He was subsequently brought back into custody six times for parole violations but did not serve again as a firefighter, Waters said.
Authorities said about 340 inmate firefighters were battling the Clayton fire Tuesday.