By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews began to make headway on Tuesday against a Northern California wildfire that has destroyed more than 175 homes and businesses, a day after authorities arrested a man on suspicion of setting that blaze and numerous others in the area over the past year.
The so-called Clayton Fire, named for the creek near where it broke out, was 20 percent contained as of Tuesday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It has charred more than 4,000 acres in and around the community of Lower Lake, forcing hundreds to flee.
Some 1,500 structures were still considered threatened by the flames and evacuation orders remained in place.
The conflagration is one of two dozen major wildfires across the drought-parched U.S. West that have blackened nearly 300,000 acres.
Damin Pashilk, 40, was taken into custody on Monday and was expected to face 17 counts of arson, authorities said.
“Mr. Pashilk committed a horrific crime and we will seek prosecution to the fullest extent of the law,” Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said in a statement.
The department did not detail the evidence against Pashilk.
The fire, burning 80 miles (130 km) north of San Francisco, was driven by fierce winds after sparking on Saturday evening. There were no reports of casualties.
More than 1,600 firefighters were battling the flames, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said, adding that receding winds on Sunday evening had allowed crews to make progress cutting containment lines around the flames.
On Monday afternoon, California Governor Jerry Brown, declared states of emergency for the Clayton fire and another in San Luis Obispo County, the so-called Chimney fire, allowing local officials to get help from emergency response agencies statewide.
The Chimney fire, which broke out near Chimney Rock Road, was just 10 percent contained by Tuesday morning. It had scorched more than 6,400 acres since erupting on Saturday, destroying 12 structures and threatening about 200 more, with hundreds of residents ordered to evacuate.
One of the season’s largest fires so far, the Soberanes blaze, was 60 percent contained by Tuesday. It burned through more than 76,600 acres near scenic Big Sur after it began on July 22.
A bulldozer operator died on July 26 when his tractor rolled over as he helped property owners battle the flames, this year’s sixth wildfire fatality in California.
Authorities have traced the Soberanes fire to an illegal campfire left unattended in a state park.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)