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Clayton fire arson suspect had previously worked as inmate firefighter, authorities say

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.

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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."

Seventh Day Adventist Church 3500 Hill Rd. East Lakeport Fire origin Heat perimeter Shelters Kelseyville High School, 5480 Main Street Kelseyville Twin Pines Casino 22223 Hwy 29 Middletown Sources: CalFire, Wildfire Today, OpenStreetMap @latimesgraphics Clayton fire 101 29 16 20 505 5 Clear Lake 5 MILES Rocky fire July 2015 Jerusalem fire August 2015 Valley fire Sept. 2015 Clayton fire San Francisco Sacramento Yuba City Detailed

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.