California is paying tens of millions of dollars to settle claims from deadly wildfire

Fighting the Erskine fire in Kern County

A helicopter carries water near Lake Isabella. CalFire reports 30,000 acres and 5 percent contained.
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A helicopter carries water near Lake Isabella. CalFire reports 30,000 acres and 5 percent contained.

California is preparing to pay at least $25 million in insurance and legal claims stemming from a deadly 2016 fire that ignited on state-managed property in Kern County.

The state outlined its payments to Erskine Fire victims in a budget appropriations bill that cleared a Senate committee earlier this month. Large legal settlements that stretch department budgets must receive approval from the Legislature.

The fire is known as the most damaging blaze in Kern County’s history. It ignited at an archery range near Lake Isabella, killing two people and injuring three more.. It left hundreds of buildings destroyed and nearly 47,000 acres burned.

The archery range, Kern River Archers, leased its property from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, according to documents released by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Kern County Fire Department investigated the cause of the Erskine Fire, which was reported on the afternoon of June 23, 2016, and determined that it occurred as a result of a powerline coming into contact with trees that had grown around it.

“Burning debris fell to the ground and started a ground fire that spread in the direction of the heavy winds eventually spotting across the road onto the hillside,” the fire investigators’ report concluded.

The wildfire spread so rapidly that it overtook a married couple, 90-year-old Gladys McKaig and 81-year-old Byron.

“He was like on top of her, and they were together, like he was blocking her from the fire,” Bill Johnson, a neighbor of the McKaigs, told the Los Angeles Times. “It made me sick because immediately I saw and knew exactly what had happened – that they were alive and ran out of this burning inferno and got stuck, and that was where they ended. I thought it was terrible for those people to go like that. Just horrible. They didn’t deserve it.”

Lawmakers are in the process of appropriating $5.6 million in personal claims related to the fire, and $20.1 million in insurance company claims, according to the appropriations bill.

A report from Appropriations Committee suggests the state will pay even more money. It received claims from 500 people who experienced some kind of damage because of the fire. The bill that moved forward earlier this month would resolve 45 of those claims.

Attorneys involved in ongoing claims against the state declined to comment about their Erskine Fire cases.

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