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Alisal’s fire grows, threatening rare plant and Reagan ranch

The Alisal fire in Santa Barbara County escalated for the third day as flames closed on homes, threatened Ronald Reagan’s former ranch, and kept 101 Freeway closed.

The blaze – the first major wildfire in Southern California this season – came amid the howling sunset winds that pushed it over ridges, through canyons, and toward the coast. Drought-dried grasses and chaparral ignited easily, and firefighters said airborne embers were landing more than a mile away.

As of Wednesday evening, the blaze had reached 15,442 acres and was under 5% control. Santa Barbara County officials have declared a local emergency and Gov. Gavin Newsom has secured federal assistance for the blaze.

The area where the fire is burning, which stretches from El Capitan State Beach in Gaviota along the coast and inland towards Solvang, is home to several large ranch properties, many of which are owned by the same families for generations.

There are other areas of concern hidden among the quiet hillside farms, including the Presidential Ranch, a population of rare plants, and a controversial oil processing facility. With more erratic winds expected soon, officials said the worst could be yet to come.

“We’ll be very, very busy there,” Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said at a press conference Wednesday. “We would expect that for weeks, if not months, you would see fire crews putting out hot spots on this fire.”

Among the top priorities for the firefighters was Rancho del Cielo, the 688-acre ranch known as the “Western White House,” where former President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, have hosted several world leaders.

Current property manager Flemming Bertelsen said the fire had occurred within a quarter of a mile of the ranch, but so far had “dodged a bullet.”

Bertelsen, a former wildland firefighter, said he and four other workers were focused on reducing fuel and defending the structure, including cleaning up dried leaves and twigs that were blowing in strong winds. It was far too early to say the battle was won, he said.

An ExxonMobil treatment facility near the Las Flores canyon, which has been out of service since the Refugio oil spill in 2015, is also of concern. Infrared mapping appeared to show the fire was burning in the canyon, but Exxon spokeswoman Julie King said no damage was reported.

The facility remains in a “safe and unspoiled condition” and authorities are closely monitoring the blaze, she said.

Exxon explored the possibility of revitalizing the facility and trucking the oil along the central coast, causing controversy at the local level.

This week’s blaze also surrounded the Tajiguas landfill, which Santa Barbara County officials say is much more than a landfill: In June, the county completed a two-year, $ 150 million project. which transformed parts of the facility into a resource recovery center, filled with an anaerobic digester that converts methane from organic matter into energy.

Areas of the landfill smoldered and burned on Tuesday after an outbreak that ignited in the uncovered concrete structure of the biofilter, which is filled with wood chips.

Meanwhile, some environmental groups are keeping a close watch on the fire as it burns through chaparral ecosystems and around a rare plant species known as Refugio manzanita. The shrubs are endemic to Santa Barbara County and are only found between 1,000 and 3,200 feet above sea level in the Santa Ynez Mountains, according to Los Padres ForestWatch.

After starting on Monday afternoon, the Alisal fire spread over hundreds of acres in a matter of hours as sunset winds set in.

“What happened [Monday] was an entirely wind-driven event, ”said Andrew Madsen, spokesperson for the Los Padres National Forest. “When you have real high winds like that, nothing helps. Everyone gets out of the way.

Fire crews remained cautiously optimistic on Wednesday after calmer morning conditions allowed them to launch aerial attacks on the blaze, Madsen said.

More erratic winds are forecast for the region, which could bring planes to a standstill and continue to hamper firefighting efforts, Los Padres National Forest Fire Chief Jim Harris told the conference. hurry.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Joan Hartmann said on Wednesday that almost all efforts will be focused on preserving the region’s “long heritage of ranching and agriculture. [and] incredible cultural and natural resources.