California’s Alisal Fire threatens power outages, prompts evacuations and sparks concerns over Ronald Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo

Firefighters battle the Alisal Fire along the 101 Freeway near Goleta, California, on Tuesday.
CNN  — 

The heavy winds that have been fanning the Alisal Fire – which already closed part of Highway 101 and shuttered Amtrak railways in Santa Barbara County, California, are likely to continue, possibly hindering progress in battling the blaze – and triggering power outages.

“When the winds are strong and they shift, it isn’t good for firefighters. And that will continue to take place into the weekend,” CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said.

The fire has grown to 16,800 acres since it was sparked Monday about 20 miles northwest of Santa Barbara in Refugio Canyon, according to InciWeb. The fire prompted local officials to issue evacuation orders and caution residents about poor air quality caused by the smoke.

Crews were also sent to protect former President Ronald Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo – which is “several miles” away from where the fire is burning, local officials said.

While firefighters have been able to reach the upper end of the fire, other parts have been inaccessible, Matt Ferris, deputy incident commander with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said Wednesday during a news conference. Containment remained at 5% on Thursday.

“We are unable to drop down the sides – east and west – because of the turbulence and the high wind velocity,” Ferris said.

The high wind threat led utility company PG&E to issue a power shutoff warning for portions of 11 counties: Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Kern, Lake, Napa, Shasta, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama and Yolo. The company said the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) helps prevent wildfires from sparking.

Beginning Thursday night, Santa Ana winds will move through Los Angeles and Ventura counties, bringing warm, dry and strong air that elevates the wildfire risk, said Guy. The local National Weather Service office issued a red flag warning for that region starting early Friday through Saturday night.

And on Sunday, “winds will begin to shift back to an onshore flow, lowering temperatures and increasing humidity levels along the coast, which will help the fire fighting going into next week,” Guy said.

Fire officials said Thursday: “Strong down-sloping winds will continue to impact fire behavior over the next several evenings.”

California has experienced a devastating wildfire season that has been exacerbated by the climate crisis, which has been creating ideal weather conditions for fires to spark and quickly expand.

A wildfire raging through Southern California's coastal mountains threatened ranches and rural homes and kept a major highway shut down Wednesday.

Highway 101 and train lines are priority

Meanwhile, firefighters battling the Alisal Fire are prioritizing opening the closed section of the iconic Highway 101 and the shuttered Amtrak lines. At least 1,300 personnel are responding to the fire, with more expected to join the effort.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department issued evacuation orders for areas between El Capitan Beach State Park and West Camino Cielo as well as Arroyo Hondo Canyon and Refugio Canyon. Evacuation warnings were also issued for other nearby areas.

The Santa Barbara Public Health Department and air pollution control officials issued an air quality watch on Tuesday due to smoke from the Alisal Fire.

Officials said among the priorities are halting the spread to the northeast above Refugio Canyon and to keep the blaze from crossing Highway 101 at Gaviota.

California is currently fighting 10 large active fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. One of those fires, the KNP Complex Fire, has already destroyed many of the state’s iconic sequoia trees. That fire was 45% contained Thursday morning after charring nearly 88,000 acres since September 10, according to InciWeb.