Could Clayton fire in Lake County have been prevented?
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.