San Francisco

Suspected Arsonist Arrested for Starting Clayton Fire: Cal Fire

Authorities on Monday announced the arrest of a 40-year-old man on suspicion of starting a blaze that destroyed more than 175 homes, businesses and other structures in a Northern California community.

At a news conference that was greeted by cheers from the community, Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said Damin Anthony Pashilk of Clearlake was arrested by the California Department of Forestry on 17 counts of arson and is in jail. Other than the Clayton Fire, it was not immediately clear what other fires Pashilk could allegedly be linked to. Authorities did not provide a motive or any evidence that led officials to Pashilk The District Attorney has not yet charged him, and it was unclear on Monday whether Pashilk had an attorney. He is expected to be arraigned on Wednesday. A woman with the last name Pashilk hung up the phone on Tuesday morning when NBC Bay Area called for comment. Sheriff's Capt. Greg Hosman said Pashilk was refusing all media requests.

Pashilk's booking records show that he was born in San Francisco and he listed his occupation as a construction worker. Records also show that he was arrested on one "aggravated arson with prior," though it was unclear what the previous arrest was for. His bail was set at $5 million. As of Tuesday, there were only three felony charges listed against him: arson, arson with a sentence enhancement, and aggravated arson with a prior. A 2009 article in the Lake County News states Pashilk was arrested when he was 33 on parole violations and suspicion of being a felon in possession of a handgun and methamphetamine. The newspaper said Pashilk had numerous arrests from 2005 to 2015 for charges related to drugs and firearms.

More than 4,000 acres have been scorched in the Lake County's Clayton Fire, leaving the city with a price tag of millions of dollars in damage. On Tuesday, the fire was 20 percent contained, Cal Fire said.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said the blaze caused more than $10 million in damages and left dozens of families homeless. Officials made the announcement at a news conference, but opted not to take questions or give any other details on Pashilk.

The emotions of fire victims erupted at the news conference, with many relieved that police had found a suspect — but it did nothing to bring their homes back or repair the damage caused by the fire. 

"I'm in shock, said Lake County resident Linda Miller. "I can't imagine what would motivate someone to do something like that." 

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's a tragic day when we have an arsonist — an individual — intentionally starting a fire," said Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott. "The suspect is in jail tonight, and that's what is important." 

Pimlott would not say what the alleged arsonist used to start the fire. 

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."

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.

NBC Bay Area's Shawn Murphy and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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