Reagan ranch, backdrop for legendary figures, threatened by Alisal fire

Firefighters prepare as flames from the Alisal Fire move toward La Paloma Ranch near Refugio Canyon.
Firefighters from California Conservation Corps prepare as flames from the Alisal Fire move toward La Paloma Ranch near Refugio Canyon.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Alisal fire in Santa Barbara County is threatening the former vacation home of President Reagan.

Threatened by fire

Flames were nearing Rancho del Cielo, the 688-acre ranch known as the “Western White House,” where Reagan and his wife, Nancy, played host to several world leaders.

The property’s manager, Flemming Bertelsen, said Wednesday morning that the fire had come within a quarter-mile of the famed ranch but that so far it had “dodged a bullet.”


“We were expecting to get slammed by the fire running up-canyon on us, but amazingly, this unusual north wind kept pushing it away from us,” he said.

Bertelsen, a former wildland firefighter, said he and four other workers were continuing fuel reduction and structure defense, including clearing away dried leaves and twigs that blew throughout the night. It was far too soon to call the battle won, he said.

“People tend to underestimate fire behavior,” he said, “and when everything comes into alignment — when the winds and the topography and the fuels and the radiant sunlight all line up at once, there’s really nothing that’s going to stop fire from overrunning even a compound as well defended as Reagan Ranch.”

A rich history

With oak and manzanita trees and riding trails hidden in the Santa Ynez Mountains, Reagan’s ranch was a sanctuary from the pressures of the White House.

The century-old, 1,200-square-foot adobe ranch house hosted world leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth, as well as the Reagan family’s Thanksgiving dinners.


A Times story in 2004 described the ranch this way:

“George Washington had Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson had Monticello. JFK had Hyannis Port. And Ronald Reagan,” says Reagan biographer Paul Kengor, “had Rancho del Cielo.”

Reagan called the sprawling, 688-acre ranch just outside of Santa Barbara his “open cathedral.” “The ranch is more part of him than any other California home,” says Kengor, author of “God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life” (Regan Books; 2004). “It was the most meaningful place in his life.”

In November 1974, just weeks before Reagan finished his second term as governor of California, he and his wife, Nancy, visited the property. He fell in love with it. She didn’t.

“When you go the ranch, you start at the bottom of a hill, really a mountain,” Kengor says. “You need four-wheel drive. It’s very rugged and very bumpy. There are potholes. As they rode up the hill, she was saying, ‘No, no, please don’t buy this.’ He had to work on her.”

Reagan christened the ranch Rancho del Cielo, or Ranch in the Sky. “The highest point is 2,600 feet,” Kengor says. “It towers above the Pacific.”

During his presidency, Reagan spent a total of 364 days at the ranch, then dubbed the “Western White House.” He received Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip there on a particularly rainy day, and “they all got drenched,” Hannaford recalls. Reagan took Mikhail Gorbachev for a spin in his Jeep.

“He gave Gorbachev a Stetson cowboy hat, but Gorby put it on backward,” Hannaford says. “Reagan leaned over to tell him that he had it on backward, but Gorby misunderstood because he wore it backward for the rest of the day.”

After the Reagans sold the ranch, it gained new life as a venue for the conservative Young America’s Foundation.