The main highway in southern California’s coastal mountains remained closed on Wednesday and evacuation orders were in place as a growing wildfire chewed through dry vegetation in the region.
More than 760 firefighters in Santa Barbara county battled the Alisal fire, which covered 21 sq miles (54 sq km) along the coast and was only 5% contained, county fire officials said.
The fire erupted on Monday on a ridge and swept toward the ocean, forcing the closure of Amtrak lines and US 101, the only large highway on that section of the coast. Evacuation orders and warnings were in place for ranches and several rural communities.
The blaze threatened more than 100 homes, ranches and other buildings, fire officials said, and was burning near Rancho del Cielo, which was once owned by Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The flames were also near an ExxonMobile oil refinery, which has been closed since a 2015 oil spill.
Fire officials warned of “significant growth potential” on Wednesday due to gusty north to north-west winds. The area is under a wind advisory through Thursday morning with the potential for gusts of up to 50mph that could bring down tree limbs, cause power outages and make driving difficult, the National Weather Service reported.
Meanwhile in northern California, fire crews increased containment of a blaze that destroyed 25 mobile homes, 16 RVs and a park building at the Rancho Marina RV park in Sacramento county. No injuries were reported, and the cause remained under investigation.
To the south in San Joaquin county, a man suffered severe third-degree burns over most of his body and about five mobile homes were damaged by flames that raced through the Islandermobile home park.
The fires this week were fanned by powerful wind gusts sweeping through the state. The utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) shut off power on Monday to about 24,000 customers in targeted areas of 23 counties to prevent fires from being started if gusts damaged electrical equipment.
The windy weather then settled down somewhat and power was restored on Tuesday, but red flag warnings for extreme fire danger will return on Thursday and PG&E warned that it may need to cut power to about 29,000 customers across 19 counties on Thursday because of the renewed threat.
PG&E equipment was responsible for a 2018 fire that wiped out most of the town of Paradise in Butte county, and killed dozens. The company filed for bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Despite promises to improve its infrastructure and more closely monitor for fires, PG&E is again facing criminal charges for fires involving its equipment, including involuntary manslaughter counts after a blaze near Redding last year killed four.
A historic drought in the American west tied to the climate crisis is making wildfires harder to fight. It has killed millions of trees in California alone. Scientists say climate change has made the west much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.
Windy weather is a nightmare for firefighters in a state where heatwaves and historic drought have left forests and brush tinder-dry. Fires that began in late summer are still burning after destroying hundreds of homes.