Alisal fire threatens scores of homes and shuttered oil refinery; 101 Freeway still closed
The fire in Santa Barbara County is threatening up to 120 structures, including Rancho del Cielo, once a vacation home for President Reagan.
A fast-moving wildfire northwest of Santa Barbara threatened scores of homes as well as a shuttered oil refinery late Tuesday as flames covered more than 13,000 acres and continued to force closure of the 101 Freeway.
Dubbed the Alisal fire, the blaze has displaced thousands of residents and is threatening roughly 100 homes and ranches, fire officials said.
For the record:
6:01 p.m. Oct. 13, 2021A previous version of this article misspelled ExxonMobil as ExxonMobile.
Firefighters were also monitoring the fire’s proximity to the ExxonMobil facility in Las Flores Canyon. The processing facility, part of what was officially known as ExxonMobil’s Santa Ynez Unit, halted operations following the 2015 Refugio oil spill. The following year, the petroleum giant trucked away all remaining oil stored in the unit and placed it into a “preserved state,” according to the company’s website.
Around 1 p.m. Tuesday, 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.
By 6:30 p.m., the fire had grown to 13,400 acres and was 5% contained, said Capt. Daniel Bertucelli, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
Crews were expected to work overnight Tuesday to protect structures, strengthen control lines and put new lines in place, Bertucelli said.
The blaze started 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 Tuesday morning, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.
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. In a tweet, CHP advised travelers: “Expect heavier than normal traffic.”
Railroad tracks in the area are 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 activated its fire response; residents who need help evacuating 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, according to Jessica Hodge, a disaster program manager for the Red Cross.
Most evacuees had left by midmorning, 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 had 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.
Among the properties that were uncomfortably close to the flames was Rancho del Cielo, once a vacation home for President Reagan and his wife, Nancy.
Another ranch owner, Eric Hvolboll, stood Tuesday at the top of a hill at the heart of his 746-acre property, La Paloma, as helicopters hovered overhead.
“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 several thousand fewer trees than 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 from his vantage point could see both the flames of the Alisal fire and his family’s home, built by his great-grandparents in 1902.
“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.
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, according to 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 reached 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 Tuesday to send up aircraft to attack the blaze “and start making some progress with that,” Eliason said. Winds were expected to grow stronger into Tuesday 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.
The Alisal fire started Monday near the Alisal Reservoir in Santa Barbara County. Strong winds pushed the fire south toward the 101 Freeway.
Fire crews may have luck on their side.
The Alisal fire appears to be moving to the southeast, Madsen said. If that continues, it’ll run into the burn scar left by the 2016 Sherpa fire, giving crews a better chance to control and contain the blaze.
The view from Sacramento
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