Fire (copy)

This file photo shows a home destroyed by the Erskine Fire in 2016. According to a Kern County Fire Department investigation, approximately 375 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

The state of California is preparing to pay nearly $26 million in insurance and legal claims related to the Erskine Fire.

In a bill recently passed out of a California Senate committee, the state detailed a plan to pay $5.6 million for 45 claims against the government and $20.1 million to 38 insurance companies that sought compensation from the state for its role in the fire.

An investigation by the Kern County Fire Department determined that the Erskine Fire started when a private power line experienced an “explosive arc” during a period of high winds and low humidity at a place where it passed through a pine tree that had grown around the line.

The start of the fire was located on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that had been leased to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1987 and subsequently leased to the Kern River Archers for an archery facility since 1992.

The fire eventually burned over 46,690 acres, destroying approximately 300 residences, damaging 75 buildings, killing two people and injuring three firefighters according to the investigation.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife was responsible for ensuring that all power lines were buried in the area where the fire started, according to a published report in the Kern Valley Sun in 2017.

Because of its role in the fire, the state was subject to subrogation claims from insurance companies, which allows third parties to seek recourse for insurance losses under such claims.

Initially, insurance companies sought $40 million from the state, representing money that was paid out as a result of property and other fire-related losses, according to a report produced by the state.

However, the state negotiated the amount it paid to the insurance companies down to $20.1 million, the report said.

In addition to claims filed by insurance companies, more than 500 claims have been filed against the government by individuals seeking to recover damages, the report said.

The bill would resolve 45, or less than one in 10 claims.

The report said two other groups of claimants would likely receive payments in future appropriations bills, although the report did not estimate how much those payments might cost state taxpayers.

The fire is considered one of the most damaging in Kern County’s history.

A combination of high winds blowing in just the right direction caused the fire to spread at high rates of speed, said Andrew Freeborn, public information officer for the Kern County Fire Department.

“It was one of the fastest-moving fires that we’ve encountered in recent years,” he said. “You would be hard-pressed to find a fire that was as destructive as the Erskine Fire in Kern County.”

He said efforts were in place to educate citizens in high-risk areas of fire prevention strategies.

As efforts to rebuild the areas destroyed by the Erskine Fire continue, he said more people need to be aware of the destructive possibilities of wildfires.

“Each individual person has a responsibility to recognize what potential dangers they may face in their neighborhoods,” he said. “We welcome the light these horrible events have shed onto these topics because it gets people thinking.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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