Evacuation order lifted for part of area damaged by Clayton wildfire

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LOWER LAKE, Calif. (KTVU & AP) -- Authorities have lifted part of the evacuation order for residents in Lake County as crews gained ground on a massive wildfire that destroyed 175 homes, businesses and other structures in a small California town while charring nearly 7 square miles. 

The fire in Lower Lake, about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco, was 40 percent contained. It has burned 3,929 acres.  Authorities said Wednesday that residents would be allowed to return to neighborhoods east of State Highway 53 from Polk Avenue south to Cache Creek. This is also the area of Clearlake referred to as The Avenues. The road closure that will remain is Lake Street, south of Dam Road. 

The progress came as authorities arrested Damin Anthony Pashilk, 40, of Clearlake for investigation of arson. Pashilk is suspected of sparking the blaze that exploded over the weekend and several other fires during the past year in Lake County.

"Mr. Pashilk committed a horrific crime and we will seek prosecution to the fullest extent of the law," California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Director Ken Pimlott said.

The state corrections department said in a written statement Tuesday that Pashilk was arrested in 2002 and served a 5-year sentence on drug possession and firearm charges. Before he was paroled, Pashilk was trained as an inmate firefighter at the Susanville correctional center before being assigned to a Trinity County Camp from April 12, 2007-July, 5, 2007.

State authorities said he was paroled on July 25, 2007 but was taken back into custody six times for parole violations. He left the state's jurisdiction on Aug. 23, 2011, state authorities said. 

An attorney who was listed as representing Pashilk did not return a call requesting comment. 

Roughly 1,600 firefighters were battling the Lower Lake blaze amid warm temperatures and light winds.

The flames tore through the town's historic Main Street, where firefighters couldn't save an office of Habitat for Humanity that was raising money to help rebuild homes in nearby communities that were hit by fire a year ago.

Several thousand people fled the blaze, some after ensuring their goats and chickens were safe. No injuries were reported.

While firefighters worked in the surrounding countryside, crews in town 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 dwelling still showed the address, but the house was gone. Other homes nearby were spared. 

Lower Lake seemed safe Sunday morning after the fire began a day earlier.

Pastor John Pavoni spoke to his congregation and left after locking the front door of his small United Methodist church just off Main Street.

On Monday, he stood in front of the burned rubble that remained. 

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, three major blazes came within a few miles to the east and south of town. In a little over a year, fires have destroyed more than 1,400 of the 36,000 housing units in all of Lake County.

The Lower Lake blaze is among a half-dozen large wildfires burning in the state, including one that erupted Tuesday in the mountainous Cajon Pass area 60 miles east of Los Angeles and quickly grew to more than 1 1/2 square miles.  The blaze was burning along Interstate 15, the main road linking the region to Las Vegas.

In central California, a wildfire near Lake Nacimiento destroyed 12 structures, damaged others and threatened 200 homes. It was 10 percent contained after growing to 10 square miles and forcing authorities to evacuate some residents by boat. 

Along the coast,  Highway 1 reopened after a daylong closure for removal of fire-weakened trees north of Big Sur. 

The fire was started by an illegal campfire on July 22 and had burned more than 118 square miles, destroyed 57 homes and led to the death of a man in a bulldozer accident. It was 60 percent contained and threatens more than 400 structures. 

All California state parks in the area have been closed.

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 subjected to the kind of wildfires that now batter it.

A pair of large blazes in the 1960s destroyed far fewer homes in the county that had just one-quarter of its current 64,000 residents at the time.

Lifelong resident and county Supervisor Jim Comstock can't remember anything approaching the devastation of 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."

   Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Kristin J. Bender in San Francisco and Haven Daley in Lower Lake contributed to this report.