Alisal Fire burns 8K acres, threatens homes, forces closure of major Calif. highway

The fast-moving brush fire burning north of Santa Barbara has hundreds of firefighters on the offensive


Lila Seidman, Hayley Smith and Gregory Yee
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A fast-moving brush fire that broke out Monday afternoon north of Santa Barbara, burning 8,000 acres and shutting down the 101 Freeway, had firefighters on the offensive for much of the day Tuesday.

The blaze — dubbed the Alisal fire — has displaced thousands of residents and is threatening roughly 100 homes, including some ranches, fire officials said.

Around 1 p.m., firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the California Conservation Corps hiked up a Santa Barbara County hillside and braced for structure defense. Firefighter Alex Soto said the crew’s main goal was to clear vegetation and make room for firefighting vehicles to pass through in an effort to defend some nearby ranches.

About 15 firefighters — among roughly 600 who are battling the blaze — gnashed at the bone-dry hillside with hoes and chain saws as thick smoke billowed from just beyond the ridge.

The blaze started at 2:30 p.m. Monday near the Alisal Reservoir, fire officials said. Strong winds pushed the fire south toward Tajiguas Landfill and the 101 Freeway. Three hours later, spreading flames prompted officials to shut down the 101 between Pacific Coast Highway and Winchester Canyon/Cathedral Oaks Road. It remained closed in both directions on Tuesday morning, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

Firefighters extinguish flames Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 12, 2021, that have spotted ahead of the fire front along Highway 101 southbound at Vista Point, north of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, Calif.
Firefighters extinguish flames Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 12, 2021, that have spotted ahead of the fire front along Highway 101 southbound at Vista Point, north of Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, Calif. (Photo/Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

Flames had jumped the freeway in several areas. Firefighters were working to tamp down hot spots, with the goal of reopening one lane in each direction sometime during the day, Mike Eliason, spokesperson for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said Tuesday.

State Route 154, an alternate route, was congested because of the freeway closure, officials from the Santa Barbara California Highway Patrol said. CHP advised travelers in a tweet: “Expect heavier than normal traffic.”

Railroad tracks in the area are also closed to both freight and passenger trains, officials said. Service on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner was canceled between Goleta and San Luis Obispo through at least Wednesday, spokesperson Olivia Irvin said. The railroad operator also halted Coast Starlight service between Emeryville and Los Angeles, with passengers rerouted on alternative transportation when possible.

Officials say most of the homes threatened by the fire are in Refugio Canyon. Evacuation orders were in effect for residents in that area, including Arroyo Hondo, Tajiguas and Arroyo Quemada. The order was expanded to include El Capitan State Park and the El Capitan Campground. The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services reported that the evacuation orders affect thousands of residents.

An evacuation warning remained in place north of El Capitan Campground and east to Dos Pueblos Canyon.

Santa Barbara County Animal Services has also activated its fire response, and residents who need help evacuating their animals should call (805) 681-4332.

One abandoned structure has been destroyed by the fire, according to the city of Goleta, which is not currently under threat.

Nearly 20 people spent the night at an evacuation center at Dos Pueblos High School, including 14 whose southbound Amtrak train came to a halt because of the flames, Red Cross disaster program manager Jessica Hodge said.

Most evacuees had left by mid-morning, but Stefanie Alboff and her wife, Stacey Meredith, sat at a table with their 5-year-old son, Nash, unsure what to do.

The trio had been camping at Refugio since Thursday, and they left their trailer Monday afternoon to venture to a nearby restaurant.

They had no idea they wouldn’t be able to return.

“When we left, there was no fire,” Alboff said. “We were only gone a few hours — that’s how fast it happened.”

Their trailer and the evacuated campgrounds are in the potential path of the fire, officials told them, and the family wasn’t sure when they could go back. The trailer holds everything they brought with them on their trip from the Sacramento area, including their wedding rings, they said.

“The most important thing is we’re all safe,” Alboff said as Nash colored in a school worksheet — but the second most important thing is Frankie, his teddy bear, waiting for him in the trailer as the fire swelled nearby.

Among the properties that were uncomfortably close to the flames was Rancho del Cielo, once a vacation home for President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy.

Another ranch owner, Eric Hvolboll, stood at the top of a hill at the heart of his 746-acre property, La Paloma, as helicopters hovered overhead Tuesday.

“It’s like LAX,” the 66-year-old joked, as one chopper after another lined up to dip into his reservoir and pull water for their hoses.

Flames were chewing through the brushy grasses of a nearby hillside, spewing white smoke and ash as Hvolboll surveyed from above. Though the area was placed under evacuation orders Monday, he and two employees stayed behind.

It was an all too familiar scene, Hvolboll said: The Sherpa fire burned nearly 700 acres of his land five years ago, killing about 900 of his 9,000 avocado trees and damaging 700 others. Drought and fire have left him with about half the trees he had back then, he said, and he’s now transitioning some of his property into rows of drought-tolerant agave.

But he was remarkably calm for someone who could see both the flames of the Alisal fire and his family’s home — built by his great-grandparents in 1902 — from the same vantage point.

“It’s part of the natural cycle,” he said of California’s fires, as yet another helicopter dipped down into the smoke.

Fierce winds that fueled the fire’s rapid growth through dense chaparral abated slightly Tuesday morning but were expected to remain gusty through the evening, forecasters said.

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. 
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.  (Photo/Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire via AP)

The fire was chewing through rough terrain that hadn’t burned in decades. The last time the area burned was likely during the 1955 Refugio fire, which tore through nearly 80,000 acres, said Andrew Madsen, a spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest.

A wind advisory covering the burn area is in effect until 9 p.m. Northwest to north winds are expected to blow at 15 to 30 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph, the National Weather Service reported.

The winds, paired with heavy smoke, prompted an air quality watch in Santa Barbara County, with officials warning that gusts could stir up dust and ash.

“The winds are not going to be as strong as yesterday, that’s the good news,” said David Sweet, a meteorologist with the weather service in Oxnard. “But (they) will certainly be a challenge for firefighters.”

Monday’s winds, which gusted up to 70 mph overnight, prevented aircraft from taking off and dropping water or flame retardant.

Fire crews intended to take advantage of the slightly lighter winds to send up aircraft to attack the blaze on Tuesday, “and start making some progress with that,” Eliason said. Winds were expected to grow stronger into the evening and on Wednesday.

“We really want to make sure that we get as much good work done today, so that we can minimize the impact from those offshore winds that are going to begin later tonight,” he said.

Fire crews may have some luck on their side.

The Alisal fire appears to be moving to the southeast, Madsen said. If that movement continues, it’ll run into the burn scar left by the 2016 Sherpa fire, giving crews a chance to better control and contain the blaze.

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©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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