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EDITOR’S NOTE: The Press Democrat is taking the last 10 days of the year to review the news stories that marked our lives and shaped our region in 2016. For a complete list of the stories, click here.

Once more, Lake County approaches the New Year in the wake of a devastating fire. The Clayton fire tore through Lower Lake in August, gutting much of its historic downtown just 11 months after the deadly and destructive Valley fire — the largest of three major wildfires in the county in 2015 — burned forests and subdivisions to the south and west.

The Clayton fire scorched 3,929 acres of the drought-parched county and destroyed 300 structures, including homes and businesses. Cal Fire has estimated the firefighting cost at $18.6 million, according to spokesman Scott McLean. Cleanup efforts cost about $8 million, according to CalRecycle.

“It’s been a hard two years,” said Dee Yates, owner of Lower Lake Coffee Co. on Main Street. Her business suffered minor damage but a neighboring deli just a few feet to the north was decimated.

A year before, the town had escaped serious damage in the Valley fire, which burned 76,067 acres, destroyed 1,955 structures and killed at least four people, with a fifth victim still missing. Damage from the blaze was estimated at $1.5 billion, making it the third-most destructive fire in state history.

Yet with the Clayton fire, the toll of despair and displacement was accompanied by outrage because investigators say the blaze was purposely set.

A Clearlake handyman, Damin Anthony Pashilk, is accused of igniting the Clayton fire and at least 16 other smaller fires in Lake County since 2015. Pashilk, 40, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

“A lot of people are really angry that someone could do that,” Yates said.

The rubble and ash have largely been cleared from Lower Lake but reconstruction isn’t expected to begin until next year. And it’s unclear how many people will rebuild.

“Some are. Some aren’t,” said Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown. Only time will tell, he said.

As of last week, no building permits had been issued for the Clayton fire area, Brown said. He said people are still reeling from their losses and trying to decide what to do next. If the Valley fire recovery is any indication, that could take a year or more. Many people affected by the earlier fires are just now launching reconstruction projects.

“We got our building permit the week before Thanksgiving and we are breaking ground” this week, said Cobb resident Cindy Leonard, whose family home burned down in the Valley fire.

The damage to the environment will take even longer to repair. The 3,500-acre Boggs Mountain Demonstration State Forest, a popular recreation area and open space, lost 80 percent of its trees. Logging trucks continue to haul damaged and dead trees from the forest amid smoking piles of slash from the timber operations. Replanting efforts are expected to get going in the next several months but it will be decades before it is once more a forest, officials say.

Many of the homes lost to the Clayton fire should be able to be replaced fairly quickly because there were quite a few modular and mobile homes, Brown said. Some people already have placed trailers on their properties while they rebuild.

Clayton fire victims have benefited from response efforts launched in the aftermath of last year’s fires, according to state and local officials. Experienced work crews were available and county officials know the drill. Charitable organizations that rallied after the Valley fire stepped in once more after the Clayton fire to begin fundraising drives.

“We were able to apply a lot of that practical knowledge to the Clayton fire,” Brown said.

Yates is heartened by the debris cleanup, most of it carried out and paid for by CalRecycle.

State contractors have removed more than 25,000 tons of debris, ash and soil from some 150 sites, according to CalRecycle. Another 40 or so are being cleared by private contractors hired by property owners.

“It looks beautiful. They did a really good job,” Yates said.

Brown voiced hope the reconstructed town will look better than before and that next year’s dry season will not pose such peril for Lake County residents.

“I really think we’re going to see some good things this year,” he said.

Pashilk, meanwhile, faces 19 arson-related charges and up to 45 years to life in prison if convicted, according to the Lake County District Attorney’s Office. He’s suspected of igniting the Clayton fire on Aug. 13 in a field of dry grass near Hwy 29 and Clayton Creek, south of Lower Lake.

A preliminary hearing in set for late April in Lake County Superior Court.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

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