Alisal Fire: California fire shuts down historic highway, forces widespread evacuations


SOLVANG, Calif. (NewsNation Now) — Evacuation orders expanded Wednesday as a growing wildfire driven by intense winds overtook parts of Southern California, shutting down freeways and threatening homes.

At least 200 firefighters battled the Alisal Fire, which had scorched over 15,000 acres along coastal Santa Barbara County and was only 5% contained, county fire officials said in the latest update.

In this photo provided by Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the Alisal Fire continues to burn the dry vegetation in Refugio Canyon on Tuesday morning, Oct. 12, 2021, in Santa Barbara County, Calif. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire via AP)

The famous coastal Highway 101 was closed in both directions between Highway 1 and Winchester Canyon Road as of Wednesday morning.

The fire was also burning near Rancho del Cielo, which was once owned by Ronald and Nancy Reagan and was known as the Western White House during his presidency. Fire crews were protecting the ranch where Reagan hosted world leaders Wednesday morning.

While the area was lightly populated, the blaze threatened more than 100 homes, ranches and other buildings, fire officials said.

“The fire is burning in dense chaparral and is being pushed by strong winds and growing at a rapid rate of speed,” a fire update said Tuesday night, when gusts reached up to 70 mph in some areas.

The fire erupted Monday on a ridge and swept toward the ocean, forcing the closure of U.S. 101, the only major highway on that section of the coast. Evacuation orders and warnings were in place for ranches and several rural communities.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors declared a local emergency on Tuesday and asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency to free more state resources for firefighters and evacuees.

Powerful gusts swept across the state Monday, toppling trees and whipping up blinding dust clouds. In anticipation of the wind event, the Pacific Gas & Electric utility shut off power Monday to about 24,000 customers in targeted areas of 23 counties to prevent fires from being started if gusts damaged electrical equipment.

The windy weather then settled down somewhat and power was restored Tuesday, but red flag warnings for extreme fire danger will return Thursday, and PG&E said it may need to cut power to about 29,000 customers across 19 counties on Thursday because of the renewed threat.

Windy weather is a nightmare for firefighters in a state where heat waves and historic drought tied to climate change have left forests and brush tinder-dry. Fires that began in late summer are still burning after destroying hundreds of homes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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