A wildfire raging through southern California coastal mountains threatened ranches and rural homes and kept a major highway shut down on Wednesday, as the fire-scarred state faced a new round of dry winds that raise the risk of infernos.
The Alisal fire covered more than 15,000 acres (24 square miles) in the Santa Ynez Mountains west of Santa Barbara, and the number of firefighters was nearly doubled to 1,300, with more on the way. Containment remained at 5%.
Although the scenic region along the Pacific shoreline is lightly populated, the blaze was a threat to more than 100 homes, ranches and other buildings, fire officials said.
The fire erupted on Monday on a ridge and swept toward the ocean, forcing the closure of Amtrak lines and US 101, the only large highway on that section of the coast. The highway could remain closed until the weekend, said Andrew Madsen, a spokesman for the US Forest Service. Evacuation orders and warnings were in place for ranches and several rural communities.
Fire crews were protecting Rancho del Cielo, which was once owned by Ronald and Nancy Reagan and was known as the western White House during his presidency. The 688-acre (278 hectare) ranch where Reagan hosted world leaders sits atop the mountain range, above the flames feeding on dense chaparral and grasses.
Based on staff reports from the ranch, the fire was about a half-mile away late on Wednesday morning, but that section of the blaze was not as active as others, said Jessica Jensen, vice-president and chief of staff of the Young America’s Foundation, which now operates the ranch.
“The ranch, itself, is still in a very defensible position,” Jensen said in an email to the Associated Press.
The National Weather Service said there would be a new round of south Santa Barbara county’s notorious sundowner winds Wednesday night, and other parts of California also were expected to experience increased fire danger.
Meanwhile in northern California, fire crews increased containment of a blaze that destroyed 25 mobile homes, 16 RVs and a park building at the Rancho Marina RV park in Sacramento county. No injuries were reported, and the cause remained under investigation.
To the south in San Joaquin county, a man suffered severe third-degree burns over most of his body and about five mobile homes were damaged by flames that raced through the Islandermobile home park.
Red flag warnings were expected to go into effect in the interior of northern California on Thursday because of gusts and low humidity levels. Forecasters also planned to issue a fire weather watch Friday in parts of southern California because of the predicted development of Santa Ana winds.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) said it would likely have to shut off electricity to targeted portions of 13 northern California counties on Thursday to prevent wildfires from being ignited by wind damage to power lines. The utility just restored power to about 25,000 customers who had their electricity shut off due to Monday’s windstorm.
PG&E equipment was responsible for a 2018 fire that wiped out most of the town of Paradise in Butte county, and killed dozens. The company filed for bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Despite promises to improve its infrastructure and more closely monitor for fires, PG&E is again facing criminal charges for fires involving its equipment, including involuntary manslaughter counts after a blaze near Redding last year killed four.
California wildfires have scorched nearly 3,900 square miles (10,101 square kilometers) this year and destroyed more than 3,600 homes, businesses and other structures, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
A historic drought in the American west tied to the climate crisis is making wildfires harder to fight. It has killed millions of trees in California alone. Scientists say the climate crisis has made the west much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Windy weather is a nightmare for firefighters in a state where heatwaves and historic drought have left forests and brush tinder-dry. Fires that began in late summer are still burning after destroying hundreds of homes.