101 Freeway reopens as Alisal fire is restrained ahead of red flag conditions

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GAVIOTA COAST, CA, CA - OCTOBER 14: Firefighters from multiple agencies fight the eastern flank of the Alisal Fire along upper Refugio Canyon as it continues to burn Thursday afternoon at near 16,801 acres with 1306 Firefighters on scene. Aircraft will be up making drops throughout the day in support of ground resources putting in line and defending structures. The fire stared Monday afternoon and grew quickly driven by sundowner winds as it burned through Tajiguas Canyon to the 101 freeway forcing closure of the 101 freeway. Mandatory evacuations are in place but winds have subsided Thursday. The 1955 Refugio Fire that consumed 80,000 acres is the last time much of the area had burned. The historic Reagan Rancho del Cielo which sits near the top of Refugio Canyon could be threatened by the flames as the fire moves into Refugio Canyon. Refugio Road on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 in Gaviota Coast, CA, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times).
Firefighters are making progress on the Alisal fire, with containment up to 41%. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Crews reopened a stretch of the 101 Freeway days after the Alisal fire in Santa Barbara County shut it down as firefighters made significant progress on the blaze ahead of dangerous weather conditions.

Containment of the fire burning in the Santa Ynez Mountains rose to 41% by Friday morning — up from just 5% the previous day. The blaze, which ignited Monday afternoon, has burned 16,901 acres, growing only about 100 acres in the last 24 hours.

Officials project the fire will be fully contained by Oct. 25, according to the latest incident report.

Rancho del Cielo, President Reagan's former vacation home, appeared secure after being encircled by flames Thursday, said Kristen Allison, a spokesperson for the fire.

Despite the gains, forward progress has not been entirely stopped, and evacuations remain in place as more than 1,700 firefighters combat the flames. Authorities confirmed the blaze has destroyed three homes and two outbuildings, while roughly 100 residences remain threatened.

Firefighters on Friday were working to secure the eastern edge of the blaze along the 2016 Sherpa fire burn scar, as well as focusing on the western portion near the Cañada San Onofre, officials said in a report. Aircraft will assist in firefighting efforts when conditions allow, officials said.

Winds, which have spurred the fire since it ignited near Alisal Reservoir, were calmer than had been expected Thursday, allowing firefighters to use both aerial and ground attacks on the blaze, officials said.

But fierce Santa Ana winds forecast to blast Los Angeles and Ventura counties on Friday and Saturday could encroach on the fire area, spurring more growth, Allison said.

On Thursday evening, crews reopened a roughly 20-mile stretch of the 101 Freeway and parallel rail lines that been shuttered since shortly after the fire began.

The temporary closures allowed "resources to really be able to get in there and find all the heat, get [it] out and then get rid of all the hazards, so that they could open that up," Allison said.

The Santa Barbara division of the California Highway Patrol asked motorists in a tweet "to remain vigilant of emergency crews," who will continue to battle the active fire near the major thoroughfare.

Much of the progress Thursday was made on the northern and southern ends of the fire, Allison said. Firefighters began "mopping up" the fire around Camino Cielo, Refugio Canyon and the 101 Freeway, which entails extinguishing or removing burning material near control lines, officials said.

Steep, challenging terrain in the Los Padres National Forest has made it difficult to access some pockets along the western and eastern flanks, she added.

Alisal is the first major fire to hit Southern California this year, and officials fear more blazes will follow as seasonal Santa Ana and sundowner winds collide with historically dry fuels.

Weather officials this week warned that the next few days will bring a chance of elevated fire weather, including a spike in temperatures, fearsome winds and bone-dry humidity. A red flag warning on the critical conditions went into effect 6 a.m. Friday and is slated to last through 8 p.m. Saturday for much of Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

The Santa Anas are expected to bring 30 to 45 mph gusts across a range of areas, including the Malibu Coast, the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, along with some isolated gusts as strong as 55 mph.

Peak gusts are expected Friday morning into the early afternoon. Humidity will likely plunge into the single digits or low teens, while temperatures surge between 80 and 90 degrees across coastal and valley areas, according to the National Weather Service.

It's the kind of weather fire officials fear most — when a single spark can quickly become a wildfire that grows out of control. The region's record-hot summer and worsening drought only helped to bake the state's vegetation and prime it to ignite.

Joe Sirard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said "everybody's on high alert" as winds gained strength Friday morning.

"We've seen it happen before with wildfires during Santa Ana events," Sirard said. "If any fire breaks out, it could bring extremely dangerous conditions with rapid spread and very intense activity."

Los Angeles County fire personnel were preemptively dispatched at 9 a.m. to strategic locations where fire risk was high.

Times staff writer Hayley Smith contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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