San Francisco

With 175 Homes Gone, Clayton Fire Community in Shock

A wind-whipped wildfire that police believe was started by a 40-year-old Lake County man decimated a hardscrabble California town, destroying more than 175 homes, businesses and other structures, including a Habitat for Humanity office, in an area that was spared last year by another major blaze, officials said Monday.

Cal Fire Law enforcement and the Lake County Sheriff's office arrested Damin Anthony Pashilk on suspicion of 17 counts of arson for starting the devasting blaze, dubbed the "Clayton Fire." The counts will carry enhancements due to the massive destruction caused by the fire. 

“The residents of Lake County have experienced senseless loss and endured significant hardship over the past year,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director. “Mr. Pashilk committed a horrific crime and we will seek prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. My thoughts continue to be with the people of Lake County during this difficult time."

The fast-moving wildfire had spread to more than six square miles in the Lower Lake area about 90 miles north of San Francisco, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. 

It was just 5 percent contained, though late in the day fire officials said no other structures were under direct threat. 

Weather conditions bedeviled firefighters Monday and the forecast called for temperatures to reach the upper 90s in coming days, with no rain in sight. A heat wave and gusty winds also put Southern California on high fire alert.

It's those winds that firefighters called their "biggest challenge," due to its unpredictable nature. On Saturday, the winds changed directions, sending the fire storming into a town.

"Our goal is to just hold it back," said Calfire's Daniel Berlant. "We don't want it to get any closer to these homes than it did yesterday." 

Underlying it all is a five-year drought that has sapped vegetation of moisture.

For the first time in several generations, wildfire had stalked Lower Lake last year during a devastating period from the end of July through September. Three major blazes blackened towns and mountainous wildland within a few miles to the east and south of town.

The new reality roared into Lower Lake on Sunday, when wind-driven flames fed by pines in the mountains and oaks that cluster on the rolling hills close to town wiped out whole blocks, authorities said. 

Thousands of people fled the area -- some after ensuring their goats and chickens were safe. A press conference was held at 7:30 p.m Monday for people affected by the fire. Some attendees were angered that they weren't allowed to return to their homes or check on their belongings. 

Dee Newell was one of the residents forced to evacuate. Leaving her home with only what she could carry, she didn't have time to rescue her horse, Dakota, from the flames. It was happenstance that she was searching through Facebook and found a picture of the horse, safely away from fire. Her home, built in 1850, was destroyed.

"She's alive," Newell with relief. "She's alive, but they won't let us get her." 

Fire officials have denied residents access to their homes, destroyed or still standing, due to the unruly nature of the fire. 

"There's still potential the fire could shift," Berlant explained. "There's still hot spots. There's still power lines down." 

Lower Lake is home to about 1,300 mostly working class people and retirees who are drawn by its rustic charm and housing prices that are lower than the San Francisco Bay Area.

Firefighters couldn't protect all of historic Main Street and flames burned a winery, an antiques store, old firehouse and the Habitat for Humanity office. 

The organization was raising money to help rebuild homes in nearby communities torched last year. Between them, the four blazes have destroyed more than 1,400 of the 36,000 housing units in all Lake County.

The fire in Lower Lake reduced businesses to little more than charred foundations that were still smoldering on Monday. All that remained of many homes was burnt patio furniture and appliances, and burned out cars in the driveways.

Residents flocked to nearby evacuation centers. In Middletown, one shelter was providing more than 200 people with three meals a day and a place to sleep. Heather Jewell, another evacuee, said they were lucky to have a roof over their heads. 

No injuries have been reported and the cause of the fire that broke out Saturday was unknown. 

Last September, one of California's most destructive wildfires ravaged a series of small towns just a half-hour from Lower Lake, whose residents were forced to evacuate. It killed four people, left a fifth missing and destroyed more than 1,300 homes in nearby communities.

Despite getting some rain last winter and spring, Lake County is tinder dry. Lawns in front of Lower Lake's modest, one-story homes are brown, matching the wildland grasses on the mountains outside town.

In wetter times, the region was not visited by the kind of wildfires that now batter it. 

Other than a pair of large blazes in the 1960s, which destroyed far fewer homes in a county that had just one-quarter its current 64,000 residents, lifelong resident and county supervisor Jim Comstock can't remember anything approaching the past year.

Residents have a new view of the wild beauty they've always admired. Comstock said when his wife sees tall grass, she wonders aloud when the property owner will cut it. After 1,500 acres burned last year on the 1,700-acre ranch where Comstock grew up and still lives, he has cleared out brush to make fire breaks _ a ritual familiar to other Californians who live in areas traditionally associated with wildfires.

"Everybody is just on edge,'' he said. "The trees are beautiful, but when they catch fire, they carry fire.''

Retirees Denis and Carolyn Quinn evacuated once last year and again this weekend, when they grabbed family photos and fled the house they share just off Main Street with their adult daughter and granddaughter.

Last time, their property was spared. On Sunday, they were let back in briefly to see that only their home and the one next door still stood among the 15 or so homes on the block.

For Denis Quinn, it was a sign from God that the couple should not succumb to thoughts of leaving due to the wildfire threat.

"It's a poor community,'' he said at a high school opened to evacuees about 20 miles from town. "There are a lot of people who are down here, down on their luck. I really feel for people and think that we can stay and help them.''

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