Changing winds challenge crews battling 15,000-acre Alisal fire near Santa Barbara

Changing winds posed new challenges to firefighters battling a flame in Southern California’s coastal mountains, threatening ranches and rural homes and keeping a major highway closed for several days.

The Alisal fire charred more than 15,442 acres of dense chapel in the Santa Ynez Mountains west of Santa Barbara. Inclusion was only 5% Wednesday night.

While the scenic region along the Pacific coastline is lightly populated, the fire was a threat to more than 100 homes, ranches and other buildings, firefighters said.

Firefighters protect Rancho del Cielo, once owned by Ronald and Nancy Reagan and known as the Western White House during his presidency. The 688-acre (278-acre) ranch where Reagan hosted world leaders sits on top of the mountain range, over the flames that feed on dense chaparral and grasses.

Based on staff reports from the ranch, the fire was about 0.8 kilometers away Wednesday night, but that part of the fire was not as active as others, said Jessica Jensen, vice president and chief of staff of the Young America’s Foundation, which now runs the ranch.

“We are grateful that there has been no fire activity on the Reagan Ranch property itself. The ranch itself is still in a very safe position, “Jensen said in an email to The Associated Press.

The area had not burned since 1955, according to the Conservative Youth Organization.

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

Crews also protected an Exxon Mobil Corp. gas treatment plant in a ravine surrounded by flames.

The fire broke out Monday near the Alisal Reservoir, and strong 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 circular detour on smaller routes.

The highway could remain closed until the weekend, says Andrew Madsen, spokesman for the US Forest Service.

Firefighters working in steep, uneven terrain were helped by more than a dozen waterfall airships and helicopters returning to the sky amid calmer day winds. But changing winds can keep the plane grounded, said Los Padres National Forest Fire Chief Jim Harris.

“When the wind changes, it’s the most dangerous and critical time for the fire because the fire will change direction on us,” Harris said.

The National Weather Service said there would be another round of Southern Santa Barbara County’s infamous Sundowner winds Wednesday night, and other parts of California were also expected to experience increased fire risk.

Red flag warnings are expected to take effect in the interior of Northern California on Thursday due to gusts of wind and low humidity. Predictors also planned to release a fire check Friday in parts of Southern California due to the predicted development of Santa Ana winds.

Pacific Gas & Electric said it would likely shut down power to targeted parts of 13 counties in Northern California on Thursday to prevent fires from being ignited by wind damage to power lines. The tool just restored power to about 25,000 customers who had turned off their power due to Monday’s storm.

California wildfires have burned nearly 3,900 square miles (10,101 square miles) this year, destroying 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, linked to climate change, is making fires harder to fight. It has killed millions of trees in California alone. Researchers say climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the last 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

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