Suspected serial arsonist charged with setting Lake County’s Clayton fire

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LAKEPORT — Just weeks before the Clayton fire leveled parts of downtown Lower Lake and burned almost 4,000 acres, destroying 268 structures including 175 homes and forcing thousands to evacuate, the man accused of igniting that blaze sparked five other fires and tried to set a sixth, according to a complaint filed with the Lake County Superior Court Wednesday.

They included fires lit between July 17 and Aug. 9 on Morgan Valley Road, Western Mine Road, Highway 29, Crestview Drive and Seigler Canyon Road. The attempted fire was on Clayton Creek Road on Aug. 9, the same area where, four days later, the Clayton fire erupted.

Damin Pashilk, 40, of Clearlake, was charged during an arraignment hearing Wednesday with 15 counts of arson for allegedly intentionally starting the Clayton fire and 11 other blazes since July 2015. The arson counts include charges for each alleged fire, one count of attempted arson and two additional counts of aggravated arson including destruction of five or more inhabited structures and causing more than $7 million in property damage.

The Clayton blaze, which broke out Saturday, was the largest of the suspected arson fires, Cal Fire officials have said.

During a brief court appearance before a packed courtroom that included a phalanx of journalists, Pashilk, a self-employed handyman who has served time in state prison on drug possession and firearms charges, sat sideways in a jury box seat, his face averted from media cameras.

He nodded his head and offered a barely audible “yes” when Judge Andrew Blum asked whether he understood the 19 charges against him. In addition to the 15 arson-related charges, he was charged with misdemeanor counts of driving with a suspended license, failure to appear, possession of methamphetamine and destruction of evidence connected with the methamphetamine.

Pashilk wore green and white striped jail clothes, his hands were shackled and he appeared disheveled.

Pashilk did not enter a plea and was ordered to remain in the Lake County Jail on $5 million bail due to the severity of the crime, Blum said.

The courtroom was packed with journalists from media outlets around the state, with more than a dozen television cameras alone. At least 16 law enforcement officers were posted at the court hearing out of “security concerns,” said Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin, who also was present.

“We don’t want any vigilante justice,” he said, noting that emotions and anger have run high in the county since authorities announced Pashilk’s arrest Monday.

Lake County Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff said Pashilk has denied starting the fires when questioned by investigators. He is scheduled to enter a formal plea Sept. 7.

Pashilk’s court-appointed attorney, J. David Markham, said after the hearing that he’s spoken with his client, but would not divulge details of the conversation.

“All I can say right now is he’s presumed innocent,” he told reporters after the hearing.

If convicted of all the charges, Pashilk faces a maximum sentence of 30 years to life, Hinchcliff said.

The potential punishment is appropriate, he said.

Pashilk “set a fire that caused massive destruction in this community,” Hinchcliff said.

Pashilk has a criminal record that primarily includes probation violations. He went to prison twice for methamphetamine related charges, including possession and sales, Hinchcliff said.

In 2007, while serving a five-year prison term, Pashilk trained for several months with an inmate firefighting crew in Trinity County. He’s believed to have been released before being deployed to any fires, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean. In 2013, he lost his home to fire, according to an account he shared with district attorney investigators. Details were not available Wednesday.

Cal Fire officials said investigators had been watching Pashilk for a year. He was not arrested until Monday — two days after the Clayton fire started — because officials said they had to wait until investigators had probable cause and sufficient evidence to tie him to the arson charges.

“We are very meticulous,” McLean said.

He would not divulge details of the investigation.

The first of the fires Pashilk is accused of igniting occurred on July 2, 2015, one along Highway 20 near Walker Ridge Road and one on Highway 20 near Judge Davis Trail, according to the charging documents. They predate the three major fires — the Rocky, Jerusalem and Valley fires — that raged across southern Lake County last year, burning 170,000 acres.

The Valley fire destroyed nearly 1,300 homes and killed at least four people. One person remains missing. Cal Fire officials said last week that it was started by faulty hot tub wiring on a Cobb Mountain property, a finding the homeowners are disputing.

One of the fires prosecutors have accused Pashilk of starting last year started along Highway 20 and Long Valley Road on July 29, the same day the Rocky fire ignited.

But Cal Fire investigators believe the Rocky fire was started by a hot water heater that had been strapped to a tree in a marijuana garden, likely to provide hot showers for those tending the operation, officials have said.

The cause of the Jerusalem fire, the second of the three massive Lake County fires last year, which erupted Aug. 9, 2015, has yet to be determined, though fire officials indicated Tuesday that Pashilk was not a suspect in that blaze.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

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