A federal emergency grant approved Thursday night in consultation with state officials is expected to greatly reduce Kern’s share of the money being spent fighting the Erskine Fire — a big relief for a county government mired in budget troubles.
The award, known as a fire management assistance grant, or FMAG, means the federal government will probably pay 75 percent of the fire’s costs. It also obligates the state to cover three-quarters of the 25 percent not paid by federal sources, likely leaving Kern’s share of the fire’s costs at 6.25 percent.
It remains to be seen what size bill the fire will run up, though it will likely total millions of dollars. Kern will probably have to carry much of the fire’s costs for at least a few months before being reimbursed.
On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed the Erskine Fire an emergency. He noted thousands of acres and more than 100 homes had been burned, thousands of residents were evacuated and critical infrastructure was destroyed or threatened.
The governor’s proclamation authorized the use of state equipment, personnel and facilities to address the emergency, and he suspended various restrictions, such as a one-week unemployment insurance waiting period for people put out of work by the fire.
County and state officials said the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved the FMAG grant after talking with people at California’s Office of Emergency Services. The grant was awarded within hours of Kern’s application for financial assistance Thursday evening.
There was never any guarantee Kern would receive the grant.
“It’s never automatic,” said Battalion Chief Derek Tisinger of the Kern County Fire Department.
The county’s knowledge it will have access to federal money does not influence local decisions on how to fight the fire, Tisinger added.
“Those guys are purely focused on doing what it takes to get the fire suppressed,” he said. Receiving the grant “doesn’t change the way we fight fire but it definitely (provides) a sense of relief.”
Among the factors contributing to the grant award, he said, were the fire’s size, the kinds of properties threatened, how many residents have been affected, whether evacuations are necessary, whether shelters had to be opened and what share of the county department’s resources were dedicated. Tisinger estimated that last measure at 37.5 percent early Friday afternoon.
The grant does not cover fire agencies’ costs to reimburse people whose property was damaged by firefighters battling the blaze, such as fences that have to be knocked down to give first responders access to private property. Those expenses will be covered by the state, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
The current fiscal year has been “probably the largest fire year we’ve had” in terms of spending money fighting blazes and billing other agencies for such work, said Steve Long, an administrative service officer with county fire.
The county has billed various government agencies a total of $12.3 million since July 1, which is the largest amount in a 12-month period since at least 2001, he said.