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Wildfire imperils former Reagan ranch

Ronald Wilson Reagan
White House

(CNN) -- Fueled by gusts of wind over drought-parched land Sunday, a wildfire approached the ranch that served as President Ronald Reagan's western White House in the 1980s, said fire officials in Santa Barbara County, California.

A ranch spokesman said the fire was about two miles west of the 688-acre (about one square mile) property some 125 miles northwest of Los Angeles along the Pacific coast. Fire officials said the distance was closer to four miles.

"There's definitely concern that it will cross the ranch property, but it's primarily dependent on the direction of the wind," said Andrew Coffin, a spokesman for Young America's Foundation, which bought the ranch in 1998 to preserve it as a historic site.

Winds were at 15 mph, with higher gusts, and temperatures in the dry region hovered near 70 degrees. The weather was somewhat milder than Saturday's higher winds that fanned the fire across thousands of acres.

Former President Reagan died Saturday in Los Angeles at 93 after suffering for at least 10 years from Alzheimer's disease.

Five days of mourning are planned this week, including a state funeral in Washington and burial Friday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in nearby Simi Valley. (Full story)

Coffin was confident that the modest 1,500-square-foot ranch home where Reagan spent many quiet days would be protected.

"There's a pretty good chance that even if the property burns, we'd be able to save the house," Coffin said.

It has a fire-suppression system -- an elevated sprinkler system to soak the buildings and grass, and a fire-retardant gel that can coat the buildings in the event of brush fires. Two Santa Barbara County fire units also were on hand, Coffin said.

Not to be confused with the Reagan Ranch Center in downtown Santa Barbara, Rancho del Cielo (Ranch in the Sky) is not open to the public, but students and schools can schedule educational tours through the Young America's Foundation.

Many of Nancy and Ronald Reagan's personal effects remain in the ranch home.

"We're preserving the property," Coffin said. "It came to us fully intact, with personal items -- to the president and Mrs. Reagan's clothes in the closet. It's a place where future young leaders can come and learn about his legacy."

Members of Reagan's Cabinet often visited the ranch. Among the world leaders who visited during his presidency were the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain.

Reagan once said of the serene natural property, according to the ranch's Web site, "We relax at the ranch, which if not heaven itself, probably has the same zip code."

The Reagan ranch comprises several buildings, including the home, a guest house, a small cottage next the guest house, a barn and garage, the ranch manager's home, the Secret Service command post, and a hay barn, which holds a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Residents along Refugio Road and U.S. Highway 101 leading to the ranch were evacuated, but the ranch manager volunteered to stay, Coffin said.

The fire started around noon Saturday 10 miles west of the ranch in the canyon area known as the Gaviota Pass and moved eastward toward the ranch along the Gaviota Coast, fire information officials said.

The blaze has scorched more than 6,500 acres and led to the voluntary evacuation of hundreds of people from the Hollister Ranch community, west of the Gaviota Pass, east to Refugio Road, said Barry Peckham, spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest.

"Most of the residents are scattered throughout the canyon," Peckham said. There had been no reports of injuries, he said.

The strongest threat came Saturday, when 150 residents in the Hollister Ranch community were threatened during the initial stages of the fire, but fire activity moved away from those residents, Peckham said.

"While we still have concerns depending on the wind and weather, there's no immediate threat," he said.

"The last report we got was that humidity is dropping and the wind is picking up, which are bad things," Coffin said.

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