San Francisco

Clayton Fire Arson Suspect Served as Inmate Firefighter

A suspected serial arsonist, arrested Monday in connection with more than a dozen devastating fires, was trained as a firefighter while serving a five-year sentence at the Susanville-based California Correctional Center, authorities said.

According to Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Damin Anthony Pashilk of Clearlake was jailed in 2002 on drug possession and firearm charges. As an inmate, he was trained in battling fires from April to July 2007, she said.

The 40-year-old San Francisco native was paroled in July 2007. He was imprisoned six more times for violating his parole, but did not work as a firefighter again before he finally left parole in 2011, Waters said.

Pashilk is suspected of sparking the massive Clayton Fire, which as of Tuesday, had scorched 4,000 acres, burned at least 175 structures, and is threatening nearly 1,500 more in Clearlake, Calif. He is scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday. 

A woman with the last name Pashilk hung up the phone on Tuesday when NBC Bay Area called for comment. Lake County Sheriff's Capt. Greg Hosman said Pashilk was refusing all media requests. An attorney listed as representing Pashilk did not return a call requesting comment.

"Right now, we know and believe 17 fires are connected to" Pashilk, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said Tuesday morning. "Ten years ago this person worked to put out these fires and here we are, 10 years later, we believe he's starting them."

Arson investigators said Tuesday they had been building a case against the construction worker for more than a year but did not have enough evidence to make an arrest until the weekend blaze ripped through Lower Lake – the latest fire to besiege Lake County.

"Cal Fire knew of this gentleman," Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson Anderson said. "He was under surveillance and we got enough information, we got a search warrant and made the arrest."

But neither the California Department of Forestry, which led the investigation that resulted in Pashilk's arrest Monday, nor the Lake County sheriff would discuss what led authorities to him.

"Arson investigations are complex and difficult. The evidence standards are stringent," forestry department spokeswoman Janet Upton said. "They have to build a case that is going to be successful, it's complex."

Pashilk lived in Clearlake — one of the towns that was evacuated but remained untouched by the fire that was still raging in the tinder-dry countryside of Lake County. In a sign of progress, fire officials lifted many of the evacuation orders in the town Tuesday, allowing about 4,000 residents to return.

The Lower Lake fire destroyed homes, businesses and other structures in the working-class town. And many of those residents were more than upset.

"What I'd do to him, you don't want to know," said Butch Cancilla, who saw his neighbor's home catch fire as he fled on Sunday. Cancilla still doesn't know the fate of his own home and spoke at a center for evacuees set up at a high school.

"A lot of people want to hang him high," his wife, Jennie Cancilla, added.

"I'm hoping, I'm praying that the man has mental illness - because if it's not mental illness, then it's evil," said Diana Bundesen, who was at the evacuation center after fleeing Clearlake.

Pashilk's lengthy rap sheet includes charges for possession of methamphetamine, driving under the influence, evading an officer, resisting arrest, and driving with a suspended license, according to to the District Attorney.

In a website posting, the Lake County Sheriff's Office initially said he was arrested on a felony count of starting a fire after having an arson conviction within the past 10 years, but later said that was an error made when booking Pashilk and he had no known prior arson conviction.

There were some people who know Pashilk, who called him a "great guy" and who couldn't believe he would do such a thing.

"He's a great guy, a great neighbor," Jon Charles Knowles told NBC News on Tuesday. "He saved my dog's life once," recounting how the 40-year-old San Francisco native broke up a fight between his pit bull and another dog.

And Louetta Mallard, originally of Los Gatos, said that Pashilk once helped "a single girl with a baby" move into a new home. "He did favors for people," she said.

Mallard added: "I hope he's innocent. I really do. I really don't think he did it. He doesn't seem like that type of guy."

Despite saying that she hopes "to God that they finds the right person" who set the fires, Mallard stayed in Pashilk's corner. "I don't think it's him," she said.

Associated Press writers Justin Pritchard, Sudhin Thanawala, Kritin Bender, Don Thompson and Robert Jablon, as well as NBC Bay Area's Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.

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