Experts defend prescribed burns after Estrada Fire in Santa Cruz County

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- The Estrada Fire ignited in Santa Cruz County after a prescribed burn jumped CAL FIRE containment lines on Friday.

The Smokey the Bear sign near Watsonville told us two things when we drove by: Only you can prevent wildfires and fire danger is considered to be "very high."

So, why exactly did a controlled burn get out of control last week? It's a question some residents are asking as the Estrada Fire continues to burn.

"If they're going to do a controlled burn when it's so dry and we have such problems with fires here, they need to have the resources on hand to combat any issues that arise from the controlled burn, otherwise it's not a controlled burn you know?" Watsonville resident Maya Demontaigu-MacNeel said.

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It all started on Friday afternoon along Hazel Dell Road and Hidden Canyon, northwest of Watsonville, according to CAL FIRE.

They say a 20-acre prescribed burn quickly jumped to nearly 150 acres after breaking the containment of crews on hand.

So why the burn now?

SJSU Professor and Director of the SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center Craig Clements said this is actually the perfect time. "These conditions are perfect for doing a prescribed fire just because it's cooler, we're in fall and this is the time that we have to do it," Dr. Clements said.

The owners of Estrada Ranch said they were the ones who planned the controlled burn with CAL FIRE along with several agencies who all signed off on the plan.

ABC7 News spoke with Greg Estrada, one of the family property owners and a retired CAL FIRE Battalion Chief. He did not want to go on camera, but he told us he is saddened that his family's plan to help prevent fires ended up like this.

The Estrada Ranch has been in Santa Cruz County since 1848 and the family wanted to help the community, not hurt it with the burn.

Estrada says CAL FIRE was in control of operations on Friday as they attempted to create a fuel break to prevent future fires from spreading east and eliminate a fire fuel source. He understands why people would be upset things got out of control, but he is dismayed that his family is being blamed for a fire they did not start.
The prescribed burn was two years in the making and while Estrada says they can't change the outcome, they will reevaluate the thought process.

Dr. Clements says despite the results here, prescribed burns are crucial and this shouldn't be a warning against them.

"We absolutely have to get fire on the ground to manage these forests," Clements said. "It's just something that happened and I think that these conditions were just really rare that it got out of control."

CAL FIRE did not respond to our attempts for comment. No structures were damaged but one firefighter suffered a minor injury while battling the fire.

Evacuation warnings were lifted Sunday morning.


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