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French Fire determined to be 'human caused' as flames grow

Massive Fire from the French Fire

Sprouting flames eat up vegetation along Sawmill Road on Thursday as the French Fire burns west of Lake Isabella. 

A week into the French Fire, officials have determined the blaze that has burned more than 21,000 acres near Lake Isabella was caused by humans.

It is “suspicious in nature,” Teresa Benson, a forest supervisor with the Sequoia National Forest, said Wednesday night. 

The fire was around 19 percent contained as of Wednesday evening, according to the Kern County Fire Department.

John Owings, the section operation chief with team 12, said the crews shored up structure defense within Alta Sierra, and held the fire south of Highway 155, into Wofford Heights.

However, around 2 p.m. Tuesday, the wind shifted and an ember escaped. A spot fire proliferated, going into Black Mountain Saddle, Owings said. Crews encountered two fronts to the fire: up Black Mountain Saddle and another up Black Mountain Peak.

Another wind alteration caused the flames to ravage land toward the Wofford Heights area. Stationed crews jumped to protect structures within the areas of Wofford Heights, Paul Ranches and the Calgary Tract, Owings added. However, about 50 percent of the population had not yet evacuated and firefighters prioritized urging residents to depart, he said.

Once individuals left the area, personnel began building a containment line and successfully held the flames by flying helicopters throughout the night, Owings said.

The containment line around Rancheria Road is holding strong and crews will divert their attention to the western bank of the fire, near the Fulton Peak area, Owings said. Winds, blowing southwest, threaten this area.

“We’ve got a good plan to keep this thing corralled with the resources that we have,” Owings added.

The section operating chief feels “optimistic” about staving off fire damage around Shirley and areas of Kernville. Throughout the Dutch Meadows and Hungry Gulch, fire has not re-engulfed the area, though the evacuation order remains in effect, Owings said.

Division Chief Bill Steers said issuing evacuation orders is a tough call, but ultimately crews incorporate safety risks for both residents and firefighters into their assessments.

“We're really waiting and only do it when we absolutely have to,” Steers said.

Michael Nobles, the incident management team leader, said an investigation into the number of affected structures is underway and will be released when the number is confirmed.

Areas under an evacuation order include: Wofford Heights, Pala Ranches, Shirley Meadows, Alta Sierra, Slick Rock, Dutch Flat, Isabella Highlands, Wagy Flat, Black Gulch, and Keysville North and South, according to the KFCD.

The California Highway Patrol announced that Highway 155, north of Highway 178, and Burlando Road at Plater Road is closed because of its proximity to the fire. The Bureau of Land Management has still closed the Keysville Special Recreation Management Area.

Areas under an evacuation warning include: Kernville and the community of Riverkern, near the Tulare and Kern boundary, according to the KFCD.

Benson said recreation sites from Kernville to Johnsondale will also be closed.

Gov. Gavin Newsom secured a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to aid firefighting efforts. Under this policy, responding teams from local, state and tribal levels will be reimbursed 75 percent of their fire suppression costs, according to a news release by Newsom’s administration.

Kern County Animal Services continues to provide help for impacted residents, helping about 30 pets, said Taylor Poisall, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross.

The Red Cross has opened two shelters, at Woodrow Wallace Elementary School and Kern River Valley High School, to house individuals evacuating from the affected region; more locations will be opened if the current locations receive an influx of people, Poisall said.

Around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Poisall said, about 50 people were going to sleep in the center. Many people drift through the schools, stocking up on supplies and then leaving to reside with friends or family, Poisall said. The Salvation Army provides hot meals; a nurse and a spiritual guidance counselor are also available for residents.