Hundreds of firefighters are battling Alisal Fire which has burned more than 54 sq km in the Santa Ynez Mountains west of Santa Barbara. Officials say only 5 percent of it is contained.

Fire erupted on Monday near the Alisal Reservoir and powerful winds from the north swept the flames down through the mountains, forcing the closure of US 101 in western Santa Barbara County.
Fire erupted on Monday near the Alisal Reservoir and powerful winds from the north swept the flames down through the mountains, forcing the closure of US 101 in western Santa Barbara County. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP)

A wildfire raging through southern California coastal mountains is threatening ranches and rural homes and keeping a major highway shut down, as the fire-scarred state faced a new round of dry winds that raise the risk of flames.

The Alisal Fire covered more than 57 sq km 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 percent.

While 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 on Wednesday.

READ MORE: California wildfires may continue to burn into December - experts

Reagan ranch under threat 

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 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, the foundation vice president and chief of staff, in an email to The Associated Press. 

"We are thankful that there has been no fire activity on the actual Reagan Ranch property. The Ranch, itself, is still in a very defensible position," Jensen wrote.

The area hadn't burned since 1955, according to Young America's Foundation, which now operates the ranch.

Fire engines were on the ranch property and fire retardant will be sprayed around its structures, the foundation said in a statement. It noted that helicopters have filled up with water from one of the ranch’s two lakes.

"Young America’s Foundation has emergency personnel on site, and our fire suppression systems are tested and ready to go," it said.

Increased fire danger

The fire erupted on Monday near the Alisal Reservoir and powerful winds from the north swept the flames down through the mountains, forcing the closure of US 101 in western Santa Barbara County. 

At one point, the fire jumped the four-lane highway and reached a beach. The closure has forced motorists to take a circuitous detour on smaller routes.

The National Weather Service said there would be a new round of south Santa Barbara County's notorious Sundowner winds on Wednesday night, and other parts of California also were expected to experience increased fire danger.

Red flag warnings were expected to go into effect in the interior of Northern California on Thursday due to gusts and low humidity levels, and forecasters planned to issue a fire weather watch in parts of Southern California on Friday due to the predicted development of Santa Ana winds.

Pacific Gas & Electric 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 that had their electricity shut off due to Monday’s windstorm.

Climate crisis and historic drought

California wildfires have scorched nearly 10,101 sq km 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.

Source: AP