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2021 Feature, Medium Newsroom finalist

The Evidence Burns Away

About the Project

In August 2016, a wildfire burned 300 structures in a rural county north of San Francisco, a precursor to the crisis that has engulfed California. In a dry state, devastating fires have been traced to numerous causes — careless accidents, downed power lines, irresponsible campers. But days after the Clayton Fire, investigators announced the blaze had been the work of something else entirely: an arsonist.

Reporter Lizzie Johnson couldn’t shake the idea that someone would purposefully inflict so much devastation. Revisiting the case as it headed toward trial, Johnson set out to understand what had led a man named Damin Pashilk to light a string of fires that would burn through his own impoverished community.

What she found was an even bigger story: that a team of law enforcement officers had been tailing Pashilk for months, and had even attached a GPS tracker to his car, before he managed to set the Clayton Fire. Drawing on public records, court documents and exclusive interviews with Pashilk and investigators, Johnson constructed a narrative that is part profile, part investigation and part true-crime thriller, explaining what drives arsonists and why they are so hard to catch.

This story is the most intimate look at the role of arson in California wildfires since the crisis exploded five years ago. Past stories in this area have relied primarily on interviews with experts on fire-setting, without studying — much less interviewing — the complex characters who have been arrested.

Johnson artfully explains the process of an arson investigation, in all its contradictions. She delves into the calculations made by a team of Cal Fire investigators who spent years tailing Pashilk, only to fail to stop him. Johnson’s piece illuminates the heartbreaking irony of the crime: To catch an arsonist, you have to let him set more fires, always hoping you get the evidence you need before he sets the big one.

We are proud to nominate “The Evidence Burns Away” for the Online Journalism Award for Feature.