The Erskine Fire that continues to burn in the Piute Mountains has destroyed 257 structures and scorched 46,679 acres and likely won’t be contained for about a week, the Kern County Board of Supervisors learned Tuesday before approving three emergency measures aimed at streamlining local response.
The supervisors unanimously approved proclamations declaring that a fire disaster and state of emergency, as well as a local health emergency, exist in Kern because of the fire, which has killed two people and displaced thousands. The fiscal impact of these declarations was unknown.
The board also approved an urgency ordinance waiving gate fees for disposal of residential debris caused by the fire, at an estimated cost of $10,000.
County Administrative Officer John Nilon had declared a local emergency last week, but approving the proclamation qualifies Kern to ask for help under the California Disaster Assistance Act, Deputy Fire Chief Brent Moon said in a request that accompanied the proclamation.
A Federal Fire Management Assistance grant, or FMAG, approved the night the fire started means the federal government should pay 75 percent of the fire’s cost. The FMAG also obligates the state to pay three-quarters of the remaining 25 percent not covered by the federal government.
This would likely reduce Kern’s share of the financial burden to 6.25 percent.
Before voting, the five-member board heard reports from fire, waste management and health department officials and praised the response from county agencies including the Kern County Fire Department, Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Human Services.
Fire Chief Brian Marshall gave a harrowing history of the fire, which started shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday near Erskine Creek Road south of Lake Isabella but went on to burn 11 square miles that night driven by wind.
It’s critical, Marshall told supervisors, to keep the fire out of Erskine Creek drainage because if it did return to that area the fire could “burn directly into Lake Isabella and Bodfish.”
"That is the No. 1 priority to continue the western perimeter,” Marshall said, admitting the terrain is rugged and temperatures are high. “We have contingency plans, if the fire did get into Erskine Creek and made a push into Lake Isabella, we would be ready.”
“You’re doing everything you can to save that community? If it were threatened?” asked Supervisor Mick Gleason, who is chairman of the board and whose 1st District includes the fire area.
“If that fire did move into that area, we would throw everything” at it, said Marshall, who told supervisors more than 1,300 firefighters have been working around the clock to control it.
“The Erskine Fire has been a most humbling experience. It is a reminder that while some of us are fortunate enough to live near the face of nature, in an instant nature can rear its head and show its other face, handing us the most destructive fire in the history of Kern County,” Gleason said in a statement he read.
“I am very proud of the strength and breadth of the county’s response, which shows the importance of teamwork and the value of every department to the public,” he added, later calling the fire’s human tragedy “breathtaking.”
On Tuesday afternoon, those teams had to contend with a thunderstorm passing over the Kern River Valley, but it didn’t pose problems.
“Things are looking good,” Kern County fire officials posted on Facebook.
It also was announced cadaver dogs have finished their search and discovered no more fatalities have been discovered. And the state water board canceled the boil water notice issued to California Water systems in South Lake, Squirrel Valley, Mountain Mesa and Onyx.
Earlier in the day, Kern opened a transitional center to begin returning evacuees to their houses in areas declared safe.
“We’re going to be literally taking the people to their home to help them out. If they pull up to (what is) no longer a home, we can’t let that happen. We have to help them,” Marshall said.
Efforts to restore services, however, are far from complete, Matt Constantine, the county’s top public health official, told the board. More than 87 water systems and 89 wells have been affected by the fire, as have hazardous materials and food facilities.
“We’ve deployed four assessment teams to try to determine the degree of damage,” said Constantine, who is Kern’s public health services director.
So far, the effort has cost $13 million to extinguish, he said, which is just firefighting costs and doesn’t include the cost of support agencies — or millions expected in damage to infrastructure and the private structure. Accounting for the FMAG, this portion of Kern’s share would already amount to more than $800,000.
“This is going to be a long recovery process,” Marshall said, predicting Kern, which is just six weeks into the year’s fire season, could get burned again this year.
Firefighters hope to have the fire 100 percent contained within about seven days and fully controlled within around two weeks, but Marshall said the weather could continue to shape the fire.
Bad weather doesn’t help, the fire chief said.
“Thunderstorms create strong erratic winds, which could push this fire in new directions,” he said.
Supervisor Mike Maggard voiced one concern about evacuees with medical issues: what about their medications?
“Is there some kind of way we can, kind of like reverse-911, where we can go to the source to find out who lives in an affected area and make sure they have their meds?” Maggard asked Marshall.
“We are working in the shelters with the people to make sure every one of their needs are met,” Marshall said.
As he led the flag salute before the meeting began, Nilon said Kern will “always be remembering the Erskine Fire and those who have lost so much.”
“We will do all we can as a united group to face this fire and help those who have lost so much,” Nilon said.