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Could Clayton fire in Lake County have been prevented?

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As the destructive Clayton fire sprang to life Aug. 13 in a field of dry grass south of Lower Lake, state fire investigators had already zeroed in on an arson suspect, a 40-year-old Clearlake handyman they had been tracking for the better part of two summers.

Damin Pashilk had been on investigators’ radar for more than a year, his movements tracked using GPS technology, surveillance cameras and old-fashioned undercover sleuthing. His whereabouts and actions had linked him to 11 roadside blazes prior to the Clayton inferno that leveled much of Lower Lake.

On one night in August last year, investigators had even observed Pashilk admiring a fire he allegedly set near his home.

The new details are outlined in an in-depth nine-page summary of the arson investigation Cal Fire officials presented to Lake County prosecutors as a guide for bringing criminal charges against Pashilk.

The document offers rare insight into the modern-day methods investigators use to track arson suspects. It also raises questions about the timing of Pashilk’s arrest, and ultimately, whether the Clayton fire might have been prevented in the first place.

“People are going to wonder what would have happened had they arrested him sooner,” said Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown, who has played a central role in recovery efforts in fire-ravaged communities across southern Lake County. “It’s easy to second guess that now.”

Pashilk, who is in jail on $5 million bail awaiting a Wednesday court date to enter a plea, is accused of lighting a dozen blazes in the county dating back to July 2015.

The Clayton fire, the largest and most destructive of those blazes, torched 300 structures, including 180 homes, and forced the evacuation of 4,000 people.

Cal Fire was tracking Pashilk so closely at the time that one of the agency’s own investigators first reported the breakout of the fire on Clayton Creek Road, according to Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson.

Cal Fire officials have said previously that the Clayton fire provided probable cause to arrest Pashilk in connection with the series of blazes. A spokesman for Cal Fire said he could not elaborate on the arson investigation because of the pending criminal case against Pashilk.

“The Clayton fire and his (Pashilk’s) actions were enough in the series that gave us the evidence we needed to make an arrest and to connect the series of fires to him,” said Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire’s chief spokesman.

Anderson said he could not offer an opinion on whether Cal Fire could have arrested the handyman sooner because he has not reviewed the full case file, which arrived at his office this week. The district attorney did note, however, that having probable cause to arrest someone is not the same as having enough evidence to gain a conviction for the alleged crime.

“It’s kind of a judgment call,” he said of the timing of an arrest.

Experts said the case highlights the challenges and complexities of investigating wildland fires that are the result of arson. The blazes Pashilk is accused of setting are known to arson investigators as “hot sets,” which can involve little more than someone taking a lit match to dry grass and then walking or driving away.

“Hot sets can be really, really difficult (to investigate),” said Cyndi Foreman, fire prevention specialist for Central Fire Authority, overseeing fire protection in Windsor and Rincon Valley. “What we often see with serial arsonists is that they start these vegetation fires and rarely leave evidence behind.”

Such was the challenge facing Cal Fire investigators last summer after a series of roadside fires began breaking out in Lake County.

The first of the blazes linked to Pashilk was a July 2, 2015 fire at the Judge Davis trailhead on Highway 20 east of Clearlake, according to authorities. Investigators determined the fire was intentionally set without finding evidence of how it was started.

Footage from a video camera showed a Subaru Legacy station wagon in the area at the time of the fire’s start. The same vehicle was spotted on video in the area of two more fires outside Clearlake: a July 29 fire along Highway 20 east of Long Valley Road and an Aug. 14 fire on Sulphur Bank Road. An eyewitness described the vehicle being in the area of a third fire Aug. 13 on Woodland Drive, within the city limits of Clearlake.

Investigators traced the Subaru’s registered owner to an address in Clearlake, where they observed a man they later identified as Pashilk driving the vehicle to Twin Pine Casino in Middletown. Investigators obtained a search warrant for a GPS tracking device, which they attached to the Subaru at 3:30 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 19, according to the Cal Fire arson report.

Three days later, GPS showed the Subaru slowing to 10 mph on Eastlake Drive in Clearlake, about seven minutes prior to an investigator spotting a small fire alongside the road. As the blaze was being fought, an investigator spotted Pashilk in a white van “staring in the direction of the fire on Eastlake Drive and taking pictures,” the arson report stated.

The investigation halted Sept. 2 after Pashilk was arrested on unrelated misdemeanor charges and sent to jail. The arrival of the rainy season prompted investigators to remove the GPS device on Oct. 6.

The investigation resumed this summer after a suspicious July 14 blaze near Crestview Drive and North Drive outside Clearlake. Video captured a Chrysler Sebring registered to one of Pashilk’s roommates in the area at the time the fire started. Video also captured the vehicle in the vicinity of another fire that was started July 21 on Morgan Valley Road near Lower Lake.

On July 23, investigators watched Pashilk playing slot machines at Twin Pine Casino. When Pashilk left in the Sebring, one of the investigators followed. For reasons not spelled out in the report, the investigator turned back for the casino. Pashilk returned after about 13 minutes. In that time, a fire was reported on Western Mine Road, southwest of the gambling facility.

Investigators obtained another search warrant to attach a GPS tracker on the Sebring. The coordinates put the vehicle in the area at the time an Aug. 7 fire broke out along Highway 29.

On Aug. 9 — four days before the Clayton fire started — GPS put the Sebring driving along Clayton Creek Road and then onto Seigler Canyon Road. An investigator who caught up to the Sebring on Highway 29 saw smoke coming from the area and reported it to fire dispatchers. Investigators later found a twisted paper item at the origin of the blaze, which burned 15 acres of grass and brush, one unoccupied residence and one outbuilding.

The following day, investigators retraced the route the Sebring took on Clayton Creek Road searching for evidence. There they found a burned paper matchbook along the road where someone apparently had attempted to start a fire without success.

Authorities believe Pashilk returned to the same location three days later. At 4:52 p.m. on Aug. 13 ­— three minutes before the Clayton fire is believed to have been started — the GPS showed the Sebring back on Clayton Creek Road. The vehicle slowed to 11 mph before speeding up again.

Investigators believe that’s the moment when Pashilk set the grass on fire.

Three minutes later, an investigator spotted Pashilk and the Sebring parked on Dam Road and Highway 53, about three miles north of Clayton Creek Road. The report states the handyman stayed at that location nearly two minutes looking southward, which would have been in the direction of the fire he allegedly set.

Initially, the fire appeared that it would follow the same pattern as the other roadside arsons and be contained with relatively minor damage. But the blaze erupted the next afternoon into a raging inferno, storming into Lower Lake before firefighters brought it under control.

Investigators wasted little time arresting Pashilk the following day, Monday, during a traffic stop near his Clearlake home.

Later that evening, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott announced the arrest at a packed press conference following a town hall meeting at Twin Pine Casino. An image of Pashilk’s face stared out at the large crowd, his enlarged mug shot set before assembled officials, including numerous Cal Fire personnel and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

Cheers from the crowd turned to audible gasps, however, when Pimlott stated the arson suspect had been under investigation for more than a year. The fire chief declined to offer specifics on the investigation.

Other fire officials express caution about drawing conclusions based upon a snapshot of the investigation. What appears obvious in hindsight probably was not so clear as events unfolded, they said.

“Sometimes it all comes together after the fact,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville, who has investigated arson cases but was not directly involved in the Pashilk investigation.

Pashilk’s court-appointed attorney, J. David Markham, reached by email Friday, said his client would plead not guilty to all counts, including four more he said prosecutors would add Wednesday related to additional fires. He said he had yet to review over 1,000 pages of reports received for the case this week and declined further comment.

Based upon the summary of the arson investigation, it’s unclear what new evidence investigators may have gathered from the Clayton fire to support the agency’s contention the blaze provided the probable cause needed to arrest Pashilk.

The evidence investigators had linking Pashilk to the blaze — including GPS coordinates and an investigator’s observations of seeing the suspect in the general area — appears to be similar to the evidence investigators had linking Pashilk to previous fires, including the Aug. 22, 2015 blaze on Eastlake Drive.

The report also does not address a reported encounter Pashilk had with a Cal Fire investigator on the day the Clayton fire started.

According to one of Pashilk’s roommates, the handyman returned to their Clearlake home on Aug. 13 shortly after she heard, from a radio in their house, emergency dispatchers send personnel to the Clayton fire reported in Lower Lake.

She said the pair drove to the area, ostensibly to check on friends who have homes there.

The woman, who identified herself as Ginger, said a man approached the pair and asked if they needed assistance. He told them he was a freelance photographer from Napa. Following Pashilk’s arrest two days later, Ginger said the same man showed up at the Clearlake home to participate in a search of the residence for evidence. She said the man confided in her that he had been working undercover when he saw the pair in Lower Lake.

Ginger said the investigator also told her he had witnessed Pashilk setting the July fire on Western Mine Road after the handyman left the casino.

Berlant, the Cal Fire spokesman, stated in an email that investigators at no time watched Pashilk light any of the fires he’s accused of starting, including the Clayton fire.

“Had we witnessed him lighting a fire, we would have immediately arrested him then and there,” Berlant said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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