Few roads lead to Lake County. The drive there from any of them is lovely.
Wrapped around scenic Clear Lake are rolling amber hills divided by vineyards and stands of oak and other trees. But once the hills recede, you find empty parking lots and vacant storefronts along the lake’s southeastern edge.
Blessed with natural beauty, Lake County is also bedeviled by pervasive poverty. And that was before another wildfire tore through the place — this one suspected to have been intentionally set by a local.
Forced to evacuate to the Twin Pines Casino 20 miles south of her Clearlake home, 75-year-old LaDonna Hart said “it’s cheap to live here but no one would live here if they had other options.”
“This is poor Appalachia,” she said as tubes from a tank fed her oxygen.
The Clayton fire tore through more than 4,000 acres and 175 homes, many of them mobile homes and rentals. The blaze followed three that ripped through Lake County last year, including the Valley fire which destroyed more than 1,300 homes and killed at least four people. The Clayton fire hit the town of Lower Lake particularly hard.
There, it destroyed a 150-year-old church on Main Street and a Habitat for Humanity office.
When law enforcement announced on Monday that Damin Pashilk, 40, was believed to be responsible for the latest fire and 16 others since last July, the calls for vigilante justice were loud enough that extra sheriff’s deputies were on hand for his arraignment. Pashilk, is being held on $5 million, and his lawyer said he would enter a plea on Sept. 7.
Serial arsonists typically target their own communities because they know the best spots to start a fire, prosecutors said. In Clearlake, just a few miles north of Lower Lake where Pashilk lived and is accused of igniting several fires, the opportunities to fly under the town’s radar knew no bounds, residents say.
Police patrols aren’t seen much here, and Clearlake didn’t hire a code enforcement officer until recently. High fences hide marijuana growing operations, according to locals. When the wind-driven Clayton fire raced down a grassy hillside into Lower Lake and toward Clearlake, thousands evacuated.
According to 2015 US Census data, 24% of Lake County residents live in poverty, making it one of the poorest counties in the state. In Clearlake, the rate is 34%. The national average is just under 15%.
More than a fifth of the town’s residents are disabled, and less than 8% of its residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher — markedly worse than county and national averages of 16% and 30%, respectively.
“Most … don’t see that hope or have a vision that things can change,” said Richard Birk, president of the Lake County Habitat for Humanity. “If they came here and moved on to college, they don’t come back here.”
Pashilk lived in a home at the end of a bumpy dirt road lined with willow trees behind the Clearlake police department. A trailer with an expired registration and a pile of chopped wood layered with cobwebs gathered dust in the front yard.
The neighborhood’s streets are narrow and walled in by mobile homes, broken-down vehicles and piles of junk. The smell of kicked-up dust and algae from the lake thickens the hot summer air.
Next to the police station is a check cashing business and farther down the street is city hall — a plain building that used to be a grocery store, Birk said.
Over the years, developers have attempted to make inroads in the area but are greeted with skepticism and labeled as “outsiders,” said Birk, who has lived in the area for 12 years.
Motels offer discount rates for rooms with pristine views of the water. On Lakeshore Drive, the town’s main drag, there’s a Safeway and Rite-Aid, but no big box stores, chain coffee shops.
There are wineries in Lake County, and fishing and boating does draw visitors.
On Thursday, Birk, a former Silicon Valley engineer, sat in front of the lake and a patch of green grass hidden from the road by an old restaurant and homes with peeling paint.
“There is potential here. I see it,” Birk said, pointing to the run-down properties lining the shore. “If we could get some new blood in here, I think.”
Dan Glover, 67, moved into Clearlake after he lost his Hidden Valley home in the Valley fire last year.
Eating a breakfast quesadilla at the Twin Pines evacuation center earlier this week, he guessed probably a third of those who lost their homes or were forced to flee because of the Clayton fire won’t return.
Of the homes destroyed in the last two years, Birk estimated only about 10% are currently in the process of being rebuilt. Middletown, Kelseyville and Hidden Valley were all hit hard by the Jerusalem, Rocky and Valley fires in 2015.
Many of the residents were renters or people who couldn’t afford to rebuild. The paperwork for others who applied for help was lost when the fire destroyed the Habitat for Humanity office. Many burned properties were not insured, Birk said, adding that “it’s going to be a long recovery.”
In Clearlake and Lower Lake, many of the area’s inhabitants survive on social security checks or welfare, residents say. The Clearlake website lists five job openings and one of them is part-time.
Churches hold weekly food drives and neighbors look out for each other, said Frances Hart, who has lived in Clearlake for 24 years and is not related to LaDonna Hart.
Over breakfast at the evacuation center as Hart’s dog slept under a Red Cross blanket nearby, Glover and the two women brainstormed what fate should become Pashilk, the alleged arsonist — and one of their townfolk.
“I’m Irish, have a temper, accelerant and road flares,” Frances Hart quipped.
“We should put him in the … what are those called? With the head and hands?” Glover asked.
“The stocks!” Hart exclaimed.
“Yeah!” Glover replied.
“Tar and feathers!” LaDonna Hart jumped in, asking moments later:
“What kind of person burns their own town? We need jobs. We need help!”