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Hopkins fire: 30 homes destroyed, 95% contained; investigation turns to motive

A damage assessment has found that 30 homes and 16 other structures have been destroyed by the arson-sparked Hopkins fire, which was started this past weekend in the Mendocino County town of Calpella, just north of Ukiah.

That final tally is significantly higher than earlier estimates provided by Cal Fire officials that indicated the 257-acre fire destroyed at least 10 structures and damaged five others.

A Cal Fire incident report Wednesday also declared that the fire was 95% contained, with full containment expected by Saturday.

All evacuation orders were lifted Wednesday, though an evacuation warning was still in place, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.

“Our personnel that were out throughout the entire incident have reported there is no smoke,” Cal Fire Mendocino Unit Chief George Gonzalez said during a news conference at 6 p.m. Wednesday. “All the hot spots have been suppressed and we’re initiating transition to go to a patrol status, which means we will be un-staffing this incident and the incident has lessened as far as the dangers throughout the entire blueprint of the fire.”

Authorities continue to seek a motive behind the alleged actions of 20-year-old Devin Lamar Johnson, of Ukiah, who is suspected of intentionally starting the wildfire that ripped through Calpella and forced some 200 people to flee.

“I don’t know what the reason would be, other than just to wreak havoc on the community,” said Mendocino County Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Van Patten in a phone interview Wednesday.

He said authorities have not found evidence of a possible motive and an investigation is ongoing.

“What’s an arsonist’s motive?” he asked. “To me, they’ve got something sick about their personality.”

Johnson was arrested Tuesday afternoon and is being held at the Mendocino County Jail, without bail.

He was booked on suspicion of aggravated arson, arson of an inhabited structure and arson during a state of emergency, in addition to violating probation.

Van Patten said authorities identified Johnson after he was captured on surveillance footage from a trucking business on Hopkins Street, at the time the fire started. Van Patten said he could not describe how Johnson may have ignited the blaze.

“It’s indisputable based on the evidence we’ve collected that he started it, but the actual mechanisms for starting the fire is still being investigated,” Van Patten said.

Johnson was described as a Ukiah resident in jail records, but Van Patten said he was living with family on North State Street, near downtown Calpella, for “at least the last couple of months” leading up to the fire.

His residence was about a mile from where the blaze originated, according to Van Patten.

The fire was reported just after 2 p.m on Sunday and firefighters stopped its spread within several hours.

The fire started at the end of Hopkins Street near a gravel bed where the Russian River flowed before it shriveled amid a historic drought, according Van Patten.

From there, the fire marched north and east, up a 1,000-foot ridge and down to the western shore of Lake Mendocino, burning in dried-up sections of the reservoir.

An evacuation order was lifted Wednesday morning for about 15 residents on East Side Calpella Road. They were the first evacuees who would, in some cases, return to find their homes reduced to ashes, Van Patten said.

Utility crews were using helicopters and heavy equipment to replace power poles in the area and conditions were hazardous, officials said.

"We’re doing everything we can to get you home as soon as we can,“ Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall said.

Several road closures were still in place. Those included the intersections where Highway 20 crosses Marina Drive and East Side Calpella Road, and at Lake Ridge Road north of the mid-point access gate.

Press Democrat reporter Colin Atagi contributed to this story

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Pera at matthew.pera@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Matt__Pera.

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