Calmer Winds Aid Firefighters Battling California Blaze

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) -- A key Southern California highway closed for days because of a wildfire was reopened, but authorities warned that flames still posed a threat to remote properties in a coastal mountain range.

More than 1,300 firefighters aided by aircraft dumping water and fire retardant worked to box in the blaze that has chewed through more than 26 square miles (67 square kilometers) of chaparral and grass in the Santa Ynez Mountains west of Santa Barbara. Containment of the Alisal Fire was increased to 11% on Thursday evening.

Calmer weather allowed aircraft to stay in the air longer, fire spokeswoman Kristen Allison said

"The winds are going to be a lot less than anticipated, so we'll have helicopters working 24-7," she said. "That's great news."

Authorities have said the fire is a threat to about 100 ranches and isolated homes. Among the properties being protected is Rancho del Cielo, which was once owned by Ronald and Nancy Reagan and used as their western retreat during his presidency. The 688-acre (278-hectare) ranch sits high atop the mountain range.

Strong winds when the fire broke out on Monday pushed flames down the face of the mountain range toward the Pacific Ocean. The fire reached a beach after jumping the U.S. 101 highway and a rail line, which were both shut down. The winds since then have shifted but have been less intense.

Aircraft dropped a long line of fire retardant along a ridgetop road to help keep the fire from moving north, and a wildfire burn scar from slowed the blaze's movement to the east. An older burn scar lay to the west.

"The further this fire moves both east and west it will move into some fire scars from previous wildfires, so those areas aren't going to have nearly the amount of fuels for the fire to work with," said Andrew Madsen, an information officer with Los Padres National Forest.

The fire remained about a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) from the former Reagan ranch on Thursday, said Jessica Jensen, an official of the Young America's Foundation, a conservative organization that now operates the ranch.

The foundation has expressed confidence in measures to keep the ranch property safe.

The rail line reopened Thursday afternoon and traffic on U.S. 101 began moving again several hours later.

Elsewhere, gusty winds, low humidity and dry vegetation triggered red flag warnings of high fire danger in parts of Southern California and across some of Northern California's interior.

Pacific Gas & Electric initially planned to cut power to thousands of customers in numerous counties on Thursday to prevent fires from being ignited by wind damage to power lines. But the utility said the wind event appeared to be weaker than what led to thousands of shutoffs on Monday and then rapidly scaled down the latest forced outage plan. By midday, customers in parts of only one county faced a notice of a potential power shutoff.

California wildfires have scorched nearly 3,900 square miles (10,101 square kilometers) this year and destroyed more than 3,600 homes, businesses and other structures, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

A historic drought in the American West tied to climate change 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.