LOWER LAKE (CBS13/AP) – Fire crews gained ground on a massive Northern California wildfire that has destroyed 175 homes, businesses and other structures and charred nearly 7 square miles, fire officials said Tuesday.
The fire in Lower Lake, about a two hour drive from San Francisco, was 20 percent contained Monday, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
The progress came as authorities arrested Damin Anthony Pashilk, 40, of Clearlake, California, on 17 counts of arson Monday. Pashilk is suspected of sparking the blaze that exploded over the weekend. Officials say he is also suspected in several other fires over the past year in Lake County.
Roughly 1,600 firefighters are battling the blaze Tuesday through warm temperatures and light winds.
The flames earlier reached historic Main Street, where firefighters couldn’t save an office of Habitat for Humanity, an organization that had been raising money to help rebuild homes in nearby communities torched a year ago.
“Mr. Pashilk committed a horrific crime and we will seek prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. My thoughts continue to be with the people of Lake County during this difficult time,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott said.
Several thousand people fled the blaze, some after ensuring their goats and chickens were safe. No one was reported hurt.
While firefighters worked in the surrounding countryside, in town crews swept up ash and worked to clear roads of fallen powerlines and telephone poles. Homes – some dating to the 1880s – were burned to their foundation. A wooden threshold in front of one home still carried the address but the house behind was gone. Other homes nearby were completely spared.
Lower Lake seemed safe Sunday morning from flames that first rose the afternoon before.
Like any other Sunday, Pastor John Pavoni spoke to his congregation and left after locking the front door to his small United Methodist church just off Main Street.
On Monday, he stood in front of burned rubble.
Previous fires in the area had not driven families away, he said.
“Those people have been through a lot,” he said, “people will rebuild.”
Lower Lake is home to about 1,300 mostly working class people and retirees who are drawn by its rustic charm and housing prices that are lower than the San Francisco Bay Area.
Last summer, during a devastating period from the end of July through September, three major blazes came within a few miles to the east and south of town.
Between them, the four blazes have destroyed more than 1,400 of the 36,000 housing units in all Lake County.
The Lake County blaze was one of six large wildfires in the state. In central California, a 2-day-old wildfire destroyed 12 structures, damaged others and threatened 200 homes. The wildfire near Lake Nacimiento, about 180 miles northwest of Los Angeles, grew to 10 square miles and forced authorities to evacuate some residents by boat. It was 10 percent contained.
In central California, Highway 1 has reopened after a daylong closure for removal of fire-weakened trees north of Big Sur.
The fire, which was started by an illegal campfire on July 22, has burned more than 118 square miles, destroyed 57 homes and led to the death of a man in a bulldozer accident. It is 60 percent contained. It continues to threaten more than 400 structures.
All California State Parks in the area – from Garrapata through Julia Pfeiffer Burns – are closed until further notice.
In Lake County, weather conditions bedeviled firefighters Monday and the forecast called for temperatures to reach the upper 90s in coming days, with no rain in sight. A heat wave and gusty winds also put Southern California on high fire alert. Underlying it all: A five-year drought that has sapped vegetation of moisture.
Despite getting some rain last winter and spring, Lake County is tinder dry. Lawns in front of Lower Lake’s modest, one-story homes are brown, matching the wildland grasses on the mountains outside town.
In wetter times, the region was not visited by the kind of wildfires that now batter it.
Other than a pair of large blazes in the 1960s, which destroyed far fewer homes in a county that had just one-quarter its current 64,000 residents, lifelong resident and county supervisor Jim Comstock can’t remember anything approaching the past year.
Residents have a new view of the wild beauty they’ve always admired. Comstock said when his wife sees tall grass, she wonders aloud when the property owner will cut it. After 1,500 acres burned last year on the 1,700-acre ranch where Comstock grew up and still lives, he has cleared out brush to make fire breaks – a ritual familiar to other Californians who live in areas traditionally associated with wildfires.
“Everybody is just on edge,” he said. “The trees are beautiful, but when they catch fire, they carry fire.”