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Wildfire shuts down highway in Southern California

22-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 101 closed west of Santa Barbara

Updated Oct. 13, 2021, 11:30 a.m. ET

The Alisal fire near Santa Barbara, California, quickly exploded in size Monday, prompting evacuation orders and the partial closure of a major highway.

The fire began in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Alisal Reservoir. Smoke and flames were visible atop the hillside between the Gaviota Coast and the Santa Ynez Valley.

The fire quickly burned more than 50 acres and was spreading fast, according to Los Padres National Forest officials.

By 5:30 p.m. PT Monday, the fire was burning 600 acres. Thirty minutes later, the fire had grown to more than 1,000 acres and tripled to 3,000 acres by 7:30 p.m. By 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, the fire had spread to 3,900 acres, expanding to about 6,000 by late Tuesday morning, standing at 13,400 as of early Wednesday morning with only 5% containment.

According to InciWeb, a clearinghouse for U.S. wildfire information, the flames were threatening at least 100 structures and that the fire was “burning in dense chaparral” and “being pushed by strong winds and growing at a rapid rate of speed.”

Sustained winds in the area have been reaching 30 to 35 mph with gusts up to 70, spreading the fire southward over the summit toward the Tajiguas Landfill, crossing U.S. Highway 101 to Tajiguas Beach. Windy conditions could continue into early Tuesday evening, with a wind advisory in place from the National Weather Service.

As of late Tuesday morning, U.S. Highway 101 was still closed in both directions from California Route 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) in Las Cruces to Winchester Canyon Road in the city of Goleta, just west of Santa Barbara, based on reports from the California Department of Transportation. This is approximately a 22-mile stretch that will remain closed until further notice.

Alternate routes for truckers include the following:

• From Las Cruces: U.S. Highway 101 northbound to California Route 154 southbound to U.S. Highway 101/California Route 1 in Santa Barbara (about 42 miles).
• From Las Cruces: U.S. Highway 101 northbound to California Route 256 eastbound to California Route 154 southbound to U.S. Highway 101/California Route 1 in Santa Barbara (about 47 miles).

InciWeb also reported that Union Pacific Railroad has stopped service between Goleta and Goviota, and the blaze is also impacting Amtrak service.

All aircraft crews assigned to the fire have been grounded due to unsafe flying conditions. The InciWeb report at 10:25 a.m. PT Tuesday stated that “firefighters are set up to protect structures as aircrafts continue to be unable to take off due to the wind.”

Nikki Stevens from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department told KEYT-TV that the fire could “burn to the ocean,” but she didn’t expect it to threaten Goleta.

The Alisal fire comes in the midst of a devastating fire season in California, including 10 active large fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The largest is the massive Dixie fire, which has consumed nearly 1 million acres since it started July 13. That fire is now 94% contained. Overall, more than 7,800 wildfires have burned across the state this year, scorching nearly 2.5 million acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Calfire).

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.