At this writing, the Estrada Fire – the latest wildland fire turned social media hashtag — had burned about 150 acres, causing an anxious weekend for residents along the Santa Cruz-Santa Clara county border. First there was smoke. Then the sound of sirens pouring in from across the state. That was followed by the warnings, the evacuations and the indignation.

One thing differentiated this one from fires caused by arsonists, “acts of God,” or with the assistance of our power company. This fire was started by firefighters. On purpose.

By now, you’ve likely heard that the Estrada Fire started as a prescribed burn. Cal Fire and the landowner, ironically a retired Cal Fire battalion chief named Greg Estrada, had carefully planned the burn and they had the best of intentions. The idea was to burn off some of the scrub and underbrush that becomes fuel for the kinds of megafires that have plagued California in recent years.

Fire officials say the wind freshened and embers escaped from the corral built by a dozen or more Cal Fire tenders. The Estradas, according to the San Jose Mercury-News, put their own experience to work and joined in the fight as the fire slipped control. But as we learn again and again, fire has a mind of its own.

“We wanted to do right,” Estrada told the Mercury-News over the weekend. “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.”

Predictably, and understandably, social media channels opened wide with complaint. How could they start a fire in the middle of a drought? Why didn’t they wait until conditions were less volatile to conduct a prescribed burn? Just whose bright idea was this?

Well, fire scientists, that’s who. People who have studied the new climate realities and the way wildfire spreads across California have been clamoring for more prescribed burns like the one at the Estrada ranch. They say that even a wet winter doesn’t end the threat. In fact, it can cause the underbrush to grow faster only to whither and dry out in the summer, which causes an even greater fire risk each fall.

For decades, it has been practice in California to tamp down every wildland fire as quickly as possible. That makes sense, doesn’t it? The problem is that allows fuels to grow unchecked for years. Meanwhile, more of us have sought refuge from urban life and homesteaded in places that are particularly vulnerable. We can (and should) create “defensible space” around our own homes, but in the case of fires like last summer’s CZU August Lightning fires, that can be woefully inadequate when modern megafires burn everything in their path.

In the wake of the Estrada Fire, plans for a similar prescribed burn over the weekend at TomKat Ranch on the South Coast were doused. We hope that was because Cal Fire resources were otherwise occupied with the ongoing fire and not primarily because of the public furor over prescribed burns. Because we need more, not less, of them.

That said, since we have a moment to take a breath, Cal Fire could surely use the time to make sure they have the best weather information and the right resources in place before they ignite another battle over a fire that becomes a hashtag.

 — Clay Lambert

Clay Lambert is the editorial director for Coastside News Group. After years working at regional daily newspapers, he began as editor of the Half Moon Bay Review in 2004.

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