'We're sorry': CAL FIRE apologizes to Estrada Fire evacuees over escaped prescribed burn

Division Chief Angela Bernheisel said a trifecta of weather conditions came together to quickly move prescribed burn embers

Hannah Hagemann
Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.

WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Firefighters have made significant progress on reigning in the Estrada fire, which ignited as a result of a prescribed burn that escaped control and triggered evacuations for hundreds of South Santa Cruz County residents.

The blaze has burned 148 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains, near the Santa Clara county line. Those evacuation orders and warnings have since been lifted and Sunday evening's light rain smothered hot spots.

"It was trace amounts but it was enough that everybody felt that drizzle coming down and it tamped out any kind of fire behavior where there's just really nothing going on," said Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit Division Chief Angela Bernheisel.

As of 4 p.m. Monday, the Estrada was 80% contained.

"We should get that 100% containment here in the next few days," Bernheisel said.

Prescribed fire is applied to reduce overgrown vegetation and lower the risk of catastrophic wildfire. These burns involve studies, permits and careful planning.

But on Friday Bernheisel said a trifecta of weather conditions came together that quickly moved prescribed burn embers, which blew up and formed the Estrada fire.

"Conditions change throughout the day, so the way things were in the morning was not same as it was in the afternoon," Bernheisel said. "Because it got warmer, it got drier and it got windier there was a point in the afternoon when all of that kind of came together when they were lighting an area that produced those embers that created those spots outside of the fire."

The fire, which ignited on a retired Cal Fire battalion chief's property, burned through a "mosaic" of environments, Bernheisel said, from grassland to forest.

During Friday's peak fire activity, the blaze spread into redwood stands and oak woodlands. The fire torched some of those trees, reaching into and burning canopies.

According to Bernheisel, that torching created the large smoke plume that could be seen Friday from the Santa Cruz coastline.

Now, the fire is slow moving, and smoldering throughout the burn area Bernheisel said.

During the weekend crews established control lines around the perimeter of the blaze, which prevent wildfires from spreading further. To reinforce those lines, aircraft forces applied flame retardant.

Today firefighters are determining if those lines are holding up. Largely, they're on "mop up" duty: scouting for new sources of smoke, looking for burned trees and any hot spots that could reignite the blaze.

"We need to make sure that the lines that are in are super secure, so they'll be going back over those and that's why you see the containment percentage go up as we determine that those lines, and the mop up that we're doing, is sufficient to add to that percentage," Bernheisel said.

Those steep woodland areas burned presented a challenge. Four firefighters working the Estrada fire suffered minor injures, and have since received treatment.

Cal Fire burners, like other prescribed fire practitioners, check temperature, as well as humidity and wind levels hourly, if not more so according to Bernheisel.

When asked what could have been changed to prevent the wildfire, Bernheisel pointed to cutting off the prescribed burn earlier in the day, or staffing up.

"Hindsight is 20-20 and if they could do something different, maybe they would have ended the burning sooner, or maybe they would have had more resources up in that area where, where the wind was blowing towards," Bernheisel said.

The agency will examine ways to strengthen communication to the surrounding community as well as having a helicopter on standby when conducting prescribed burns.

"We're sorry that this had to cause so much fear and trauma to the people who had to evacuate and live through it," Bernheisel said. "I hope they can see we were able to get things under control so quickly."


(c)2021 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2022 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.