The most devastating fire in Kern County history was caused by a private power line that wore down over time as it rubbed against a tree, Kern County Fire officials said Thursday.
The Erskine Fire, which destroyed more than 280 homes as it roared across nearly 50,000 acres, was ignited when the line exploded, Fire Chief Brian Marshall said. Specifically, the line suffered a “catastrophic electrical arc” that dropped molten material onto dry grass.
The six-month investigation has been turned over to the Bureau of Land Management, which will determine whether civil penalties and criminal charges will be sought.
Officials did not reveal the identity of the owner of the property on which the power line was on, nor did they say whether it was residential or commercial property. Marshall said the line went from one building to another.
However, attorneys with Clifford & Brown sent out a news release late Thursday afternoon stating the fire started on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management that contains an archery facility.
The facility, operated by Kern River Archers, is located at 3200 Range Road, according to the release, sent on behalf of Kern River Archers. That group leases the facility from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which in turn leases the land from BLM, according to the release.
“Our hearts go out to the people and families of the Kern River Valley who have been impacted by the Erskine Fire,” the release said. “The KRA has fully cooperated with the investigation by the Kern County Fire Department and will work with the BLM in its investigation regarding the Erskine Fire.”
Additionally, several attorneys outside the county sent a news release saying they are representing more than 200 people who suffered losses in the fire. The release said multiple claims have been filed against the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We plan to hold those accountable for causing such grave and avoidable losses, and will thoughtfully and aggressively pursue the rights of our clients," Christopher C. Sieglock, founder of the Law Offices of Christopher C. Sieglock, said in the release.
The release said the Chico-based Law Office of Kenneth Roye was also involved.
At a press conference at fire department headquarters Thursday, Marshall said hundreds of people were interviewed during the investigation. Normal causes of wildfires, such as lightning and vehicles, were ruled out.
The blaze was reported late the afternoon of June 23 near Erskine Creek Road and Apollo Way.
Marshall said conditions in June were perfect for a wildfire: Hot weather; low fuel moisture; drought conditions; and strong winds. The blaze chewed up thousands of acres in a few hours and burned 80 structures in 24 hours.
“It burned faster than any fire that we have ever witnessed before,” Marshall said.
Hit hardest in the 75 square miles of Kern County that were scorched were two communities near Isabella Lake: Squirrel Valley to the south, and South Lake to the southeast.
East of South Lake on South Kelso Valley Road, an estimated half-dozen homes burned, county officials said in July. In Squirrel Valley, an estimated 42 to 45 homes burned, many of them mobile homes.
Two people were overcome by smoke and died as they tried to flee their house. The fire raged for 18 days before hundreds of firefighting personnel managed to contain it.
Kern’s Public Health Services Department partnered with the State of California and other agencies to offer residents a free hazardous materials removal and debris cleanup assistance program. They urged residents not to mount cleanups on their own as debris and ash from the fire could have contained lead, asbestos and other toxic substances.
As the blaze wound down, a Local Assistance Center opened at Woodrow W. Wallace Middle School and offered information on how to replace lost records and apply for assistance, plus access to state and county agencies including the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Insurance, and the Employment Development Department.
About 218 water wells were affected by the fire, whether losing electrical power or being burned so severely they were open and presented a falling hazard.
The Erskine Fire is ranked 15th out of the 20 most damaging wildfires in California history.