Major highway still closed by wind-whipped wildfire

By Via AP news wire
Santa Barbara County Fire Department

A major Southern California highway remained closed Wednesday and evacuation orders were in place from a growing blaze driven by intense winds that raised the risk of wildfires in much of the state.

More than 200 firefighters battled the Alisal Fire, which covered 21 square miles (54 square kilometers) along coastal Santa Barbara County and was only 5% contained, county fire officials said.

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 of the lightly populated region.

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, when gusts reached 70 mph (113 kph) in some areas.

The fire was burning a few miles from 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.

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

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 burns and about five mobile homes were damaged by flames that raced through the Islander Mobile Home Park, Lathrop-Manteca Fire Chief Josh Capper told Fox40-TV.

The injured man suffered severe third-degree burns over most of his body, Capper said.

Powerful gusts that swept through the state on Monday also toppled trees and whipped up blinding dust clouds.

Windy weather was expected to subside in northern and central California. But red flag warnings for extreme fire danger will return Thursday.

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.

Power was restored Tuesday. But PG&E said it may need to cut power to about 29,000 customers across 19 counties on Thursday because of the renewed threat from dry, gusty weather.

PG&E equipment was blamed for a 2018 fire that wiped out most of the town of Paradise in Butte County. The company filed for bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. PG&E also faces criminal charges for fires caused by its fraying equipment, including involuntary manslaughter counts in connection to a blaze near the city of Redding last year that killed four.

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.


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