BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – Officials said Thursday afternoon that the cause of this summer’s deadly Erskine fire in Southern California was an electrical arc from a worn out power line.
Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall said the power line, which is privately owned, got caught in a tree. Constant rubbing against the bark wore down the line’s protective insulation, causing it to suffer catastrophic failure and send molten material arcing into nearby dry vegetation.
The setting was perfect for a fire, with hot, dry, windy weather and five years of drought drying up the surrounding environment. This perfect storm coalesced into a wildfire that raged for two weeks in late June and early July, causing a “level of devastation not before seen in Kern County,” Marshall said at a Thursday afternoon press conference.
The line is located on land leased from the Bureau of Land Management, which will become the lead agency in charge of further investigation, officials said.
A total of 30,000 acres burned in the blaze, driven by hot winds blowing through the Kern River Canyon. After roaring out of the mountains into the desert floor and the Piute Fire scar, firefighters were finally able to contain it, Marshall said.
Approximately 2,500 firefighters from several agencies – including the Kern County Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and BLM – were on the scene this summer.
Several watched their own homes burn as they fought the fire, not knowing if their families had escaped. Veteran firefighters said they had never seen anything like it before, Marshall said.
“It was truly a devastating fire for the community and for our fire fighters,” the fire chief said Thursday.
Kern County fire investigators worked for six months with a team of experts from other agencies to determine the cause of the Erskine Fire and assess the damage. A total of 280 homes were completely destroyed, including everything inside, and hundreds of other homes and cars were damaged.
The blaze also claimed two lives: Byron McCraig, an 81-year-old Anglican priest, and his 90-year-old wife Agnes were unable to escape the quickly advancing flames and died on June 24, apparently from smoke inhalation.
Hundreds of people from the mountain communities ravaged by the fire spent weeks in evacuation centers. Many are still homeless. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be putting up 27 manufactured housing units in the Kern River Valley in the new year to help those who lost everything, Marshall said.
Costs of suppressing the Erskine Fire were around $23 million. Since it took place on local, state, and federal lands, FEMA will give local agencies a fire grant to cover 75 percent of recovery costs, according to Marshall.
Officials still do not know the total dollar amount of property damage caused by the fire, or whether fines will be levied against the owner of the private power line.
Meanwhile, the Kern County Fire Department will be stepping up defensible space inspections to keep other electrical lines in the area safe and up to code.
“This was one for the record books, and we never want it to happen again,” Marshall said.