Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

Northern California Loses Historic Small Town to Clayton Fire

Lake County fire destroys 175 structures, including several on Lower Lake's Main Street

 

August 17, 2016

Wikimedia Commons

The burned out remnants of a parking lot with structures in the background at Lower Lake.

The Clayton Fire has destroyed a California town, enveloping more than 175 homes, businesses and other structures. Ironically, buidlings lost include a Habitat for Humanity office. The 3000 fire appears to have been deliberately set, and is less than 5% contained.

Monday night, Lake County Sheriff's Deputies said 40-year-old Damian Anthony Pashlik, 40, had been arrested for allegedly starting the blaze that has decimated communities in the area. He was charged with 17 counts of arson. He was apparently arrested in an evacuation shelter, which broke out in applause when he was arrested.

The weather forecast called for temperatures to reach the upper 90s in the days to come, with no rain in sight. A heave wave and gusty winds also put Southern California on high fire alert.

Lower Lake barely missed wildfires that plagued towns east and south last year. But local residents were forced to face a new reality when wind-driven flames fed by pines in the mountains and live oaks dotting the rolling hills close to town wiped out whole blocks. Thousands of people fled the area - some after ensuring their goats and chickens were safe, authorities said.

Lower Lake is home to about 1,300 mostly working class people and retirees who are drawn to its rustic charm and housing prices that are significantly lower than the San Francisco Bay Area. Firemen couldn't protect all of historic Main Street and flames burned a winery, an antiques store, old firehouse and the Habitat for Humanity office.The organization was raising money to help rebuild homes in nearby communities torched last year. Between them, the four blazes have destroyed more than 1,400 of the 36,000 housing units in all Lake County.

The blaze decimated that town, reducing businesses to little more than charred foundations that were still smoldering on Monday. All that remained of many homes was burnt patio furniture and appliances, and burned out cars in the driveways.

No injuries have been reported in the wildfires.

The fire was first reported at 6:03 pm on August 13th near Highway 29 and Clayton Creek Road. By August 14th, the second day, 10 homes had been destroyed and up to 6,000 people had been evacuated from Lower Lake and Clearlake, including St. Helena Hospital.[1][2] An evacuation center was opened at Highlands Senior Center and was evacuated the following day.

By August 15, the third day, 5% of the fire had been contained, burning a total of 3,000 acres, 175 buildings, including a local Habitat for Humanity office, had been destroyed and 1,044 fire personnel were on the ground. Road closures were announced throughout the area, including Clayton Creek Rd. at Highway 29, Morgan Valley Rd., N. Spruce Grove Rd. at Spruce Grove Rd., and Jerusalem Grade South Spruce Grove Rd. State Route 53 at Highway 29 is closed. New evacuation centers were opened at Twin Pine Casino, Kelseyville High School, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Lakeport.

Last September, one of California's most destructive wildfires ravaged a series of small towns just a half-hour from Lower Lake, whose residents were forced to evacuate. It killed four people, left a fifth missing and destroyed more than 1,300 homes in nearby communities.

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.

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."

Retirees Denis and Carolyn Quinn evacuated once last year and again this weekend, when they grabbed family photos and fled the house they share just off Main Street with their adult daughter and granddaughter.

Lower Lake barely missed wildfires that plagued towns east and south last year. However, the residents were forced to face a new reality when wind-driven flames fed by pines in the mountains and oaks that cluster on the rolling hills close to town wiped out whole blocks, authorities said. Thousands of people fled the area - some after ensuring their goats and chickens were safe.

Last time, their property was spared. On Sunday, they were let back in briefly to see that only their home and the one next door still stood among the 15 or so homes on the block.

For Denis Quinn, it was a sign from God that the couple should not succumb to thoughts of leaving due to the wildfire threat.

"It's a poor community," he said at a high school opened to evacuees about 20 miles from town. "There are a lot of people who are down here, down on their luck. I really feel for people and think that we can stay and help them."

In central California, a wildfire near Lake Nacimiento, about 180 miles northwest of Los Angeles, grew to nearly 7 square miles and forced authorities to evacuate some residents by boat when it shifted toward the lake Sunday. It was partially contained.

A wildfire in Nevada turned deadly when U.S. Forest Service firefighter Justin Beebe, 26, of Vermont, was hit by a tree Saturday, authorities say.

 

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