By Stephen Lam
MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (Reuters) – A man was arrested on Monday on suspicion of arson, officials said, over a wildfire in Northern California that has destroyed more than 175 homes and businesses and forced hundreds of residents to flee.
The conflagration is one of two dozen major wildfires across the drought-parched U.S. West that have all together charred nearly 300,000 acres (120,000 hectares).
Damin Pashilk, 40, faces 17 counts of arson over the so-called Clayton Fire, in the foothill community of Lower Lake, and other fires nearby over the past year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) 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 fire, burning some 80 miles (130 km) north of San Francisco, was driven by fierce winds after sparking on Saturday evening. It threatens 1,500 structures besides the more than 175 destroyed, Cal Fire said on Monday.
There were no reports of casualties, however.
The Clayton fire, which had blackened about 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) by late Monday afternoon, was about 5 percent contained, fire officials said.
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 and putting out hot spots.
The nearby community of Clear Lake was evacuated, and sheriff’s deputies in Lake County were investigating burned-out structures.
On Monday afternoon, California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, 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 was just 10 percent contained by Monday evening. It had scorched more than 5,400 acres (2,185 hectares) within less than 48 hours after erupting on Saturday afternoon, destroying a dozen structures and threatening about 200 more, with hundreds of residents being told to evacuate.
One of the season’s largest fires so far, the Soberanes blaze, was 60 percent contained by Monday. It burned through more than 74,600 acres (30,189 hectares) near scenic Big Sur, destroying 57 homes 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.
(Reporting by Stephen Lam in Middletown, Calif.; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Curtis Skinner; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Clarence Fernandez)