An ST2 plane battles the Estrada Fire on Oct. 15, 2021.
(Mike Gagarin)
Watsonville

UPDATE: Fire in Pajaro Valley now 60% contained

A planned burn to get rid of brush on the Estrada Ranch in South County Friday quickly turned into a 80-acre blaze. That grew to nearly 150 acres by Sunday, but firefighters say they’re getting it under control.

A prescribed burn Friday near the Santa Clara County line in the Pajaro Valley area expanded from 20 acres to many times that number, forcing the evacuation of 76 homes.

Cal Fire’s Division Chief Angela Bernheisel said at 10 a.m. Sunday that the fire was 60% contained.

The agency expects the controlled burn, which jumped its prepared 20-acre perimeter Friday afternoon, will remain at the 148 acres, as estimated late Saturday.

The cause of the fire, at Hazel Dell Road and Hidden Canyon northwest of Watsonville, is listed as unknown.

CalFire’s summary states it has been a threat to structures, powerlines and commercial timberland, and that “sensitive wildlife habitat (was) threatened.”

Bernheisel said the sensitive habitat includes possible homes to steelhead salmon and red- and yellow-tailed frogs. She said any possible sighting or known habit of those animals on the Estrada Family Ranch — where the prescribed burn was planned to decrease dry brush — would trigger that announcement due to federal threatened and endangered species laws.

One of the Estrada family members is a retired wildland firefighter.

But that threat is over, she said. “We’re putting the fire out today,” she said, adding that humidity was significantly higher Sunday than it had been Friday.

One firefighter received minor injuries, she said, but was able to return to work the same day.

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Asked earlier whether the burn should have taken place on a dry and relatively hot day, Bernheisel said it speaks to a common dilemma. Friday afternoon temperatures were in the low-to-mid 70s with 32% humidity.

“We have an objective and when the conditions are right to achieve our goal, the conditions are also ripe for a fire,” she said.

The burn was one of several planned for Estrada Ranch, to consume brush. It was largely contained within the ranch.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Matson said 76 homes were evacuated along with some animals.

“There was no indication of looting,” he said. “There were very few people up there.”

From West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz on Friday afternoon, there was a clear white plume of smoke surrounded by a huge gaseous ball of dark smoke. The sunset was blood-orange red. Plumes of smoke could be seen heading over the mountain toward Morgan Hill and Gilroy.

On Saturday, the hum of air tankers battling the fire could be heard from Watsonville.

In addition to the Cal Fire and the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office, the California Highway Patrol local fire departments, Pacific Gas & Electric, as well as others, assisted.