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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.