Escaped controlled burn was on retired CAL FIRE chief's property

A controlled burn on former Battalion Chief Greg Estrada's ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains jumped containment lines

Paul Rogers
Mercury News

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — In a career as a firefighter that spanned 32 years, Greg Estrada worked to put out dozens of wildfires across California.

On Friday, the retired Cal Fire battalion chief battled one on his own property, when a controlled burn by Cal Fire on his family's ranch to reduce fire risk in the Santa Cruz Mountains jumped containment lines.

"We wanted to do right," he said late Saturday. "My family has been here since the 1800s. We feel as though we're good stewards of the land. The overall goal was to improve the environment."

Even though more than a dozen Cal Fire firefighters were supervising the burn, sudden gusts of wind sent embers over their lines. Estrada and his son Zach, who had been watching the operation, tried to help put out the flames with water and hand tools.

"We were putting out spot fires, but you can only put out so many," said Estrada, 53. "Four-foot by four-foot fires became 10-foot by-10 foot. And then 30-foot by 30-foot. It just rapidly got out of control."

The fire leaped from brush in cattle pastures into redwoods, and sent up a huge column of smoke visible across Monterey Bay, Gilroy and San Jose. Cal Fire officials brought in 467 firefighters by Saturday, some from as far away as Mendocino and Placer counties, along with four air tankers and four helicopters.

The blaze blackened 148 acres near the Santa Cruz- Santa Clara county line, including a small portion of Mount Madonna County Park. It was 35% contained Sunday morning. Crews reported it was under control, and planned to mop up over the next few days.

The Estrada Fire didn't burn any homes.

But the incident provided a difficult reminder that across the West, where fire scientists say controlled burns and forest thinning are desperately needed to remove overgrown brush and dead trees on millions of acres to reduce the risk of massive megafires, sometimes even carefully planned, beneficial fire gets away.

On social media, some nearby residents and others were critical, wondering why Cal Fire would approve a controlled burn while the state is in the middle of its most severe two-year drought since 1976-77 — and in a county that lost more than 1,000 homes last year when the CZU Lightning Complex Fire roared through the Boulder Creek area and Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

"What the the actual #%£ were they thinking?" wrote one woman on Cal Fire's Facebook page.

"Shameful!" wrote another.

"Who the hell authorized this and thought this was a good idea during these conditions?" asked another.

Angela Bernheisel, division chief for the San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit of Cal Fire, said that the controlled burn on the Estrada Ranch was supervised by her agency, and was supposed to treat 20 acres of rangeland and forest.

Cal Fire officials approved the detailed plan, as did officials from the Monterey Bay Air Resources District, after monitoring humidity levels, winds and other forecasted conditions.

Although some people might think that wet winter months would be better for controlled burns, Bernheisel said they often aren't.

"You have to burn when the fuels will burn well," she said. "We wouldn't be able to really have an effective program after any significant moisture."

Craig Clements, director of the Fire Weather Research Lab at San Jose State University, agreed.

"It's fall. It's cold in the morning," Clements said. "There's dew on the plants. It hasn't been windy. It's a good time to do it."

Rain forecast for next week could have limited the viability of the project, he added, noting that thousands of acres are treated with controlled burns in California and escapes are rare.

"It's important that we do more prescribed burns around the state," he said. "Fall and spring are the typical shoulder seasons when we do them. You can't do it in the winter because it's too wet."

Cal Fire officials have been working to reduce fire risk in the forests and ridges near Summit Road between Highway 17 and Highway 152, Bernheisel said.

At least 15 Cal Fire fighters were at the ranch, off Hazel Del Road the hills above Corralitos, she said. They had four fire engines, a bulldozer and water tender. When the fire got away, a helicopter arrived within 10 minutes, she added.

"We still need to do controlled burns," she said. "I hope the public can appreciate the fact that we were prepared for anything. We were able to get it under control very quickly."

Estrada, who retired in 2017 after supervising fire crews in the Watsonville area, and whose family has operated a cattle and timber operation on the scenic property for generations, said it took two years to complete all the studies for the controlled burn and get the permits. He said the plan, which he supported, is part of a larger strategy to treat several hundred acres over the next three years on the ranch, creating a half-mile wide fuel break so that if a major fire breaks out, it can be slowed or stopped.

"If you ask me if we'd do it again, we're going to take a pause," he said. "We're going to re-evaluate in a year or two. I won't say we won't. But we're going to take a deep breath."

Derek Witmer, who retired three years ago as chief of the Santa Clara Unit of Cal Fire in Morgan Hill, and who lives three miles from the fire, said he understands the public's frustration.

"I get that people are asking questions," he said. "They need to. It keeps the agency accountable. If the wind hadn't shifted the plan would have worked. That's part of the hazard when there's any kind of fire on the ground."

"We need to look at more of this," he added. "The public needs to understand there is a risk with controlled burns. But in the long run they help reduce the fire load, and reduce the risk of megafires."

(c)2021 the San Jose Mercury News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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