A section of Highway 101 that closed Monday due to the Alisal fire, but reopened Thursday, forced motorists to take alternate routes, increasing congested traffic along Highway 154 and prompting California Highway Patrol officials to issue safety warnings to drivers Thursday.
The fire, which has burned 16,801 acres and is 5% contained, was reported Monday shortly after 2 p.m. in the area of West Camino Cielo and Refugio Road, near the Alisal Reservoir, and swept down the southern slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains to the Pacific Ocean in about three hours, according to Los Padres National Forest Fire Chief Jimmy Harris.
Officials have suggested alternate routes, including Interstate 5, although increased traffic through Highway 154 has caused CHP officials to tell drivers to slow down and pay attention.
“We’re just asking people to give themselves plenty of time to get from one place to another,” said CHP Buellton Officer Keith Rogers, adding drivers need to lower speeds and limit distractions. “Just be patient. If you see something, say something because safety involves the [entire] community.”
Officials on Thursday have reopened a railroad track that closed several days ago due to the Alisal fire, which grew to 16,801 acres and prompted a new evacuation order for Gaviota area of the coast, while crews work to prevent the blaze from crossing the still-closed Highway 101 at Gaviota.
Jim Shivers, Caltrans District 5 spokesman, on Thursday credited workers and first responders for repairing guardrails and sign posts along the highway to get it reopened.
While traffic volume appeared to have increased significantly since Monday, officials do not have a “baseline” of normal traffic to make a comparison, according to Rogers.
Since Monday, CHP officials recorded six traffic collisions ranging from damage to property to some with minor injuries, six reports of reckless driving and “lots” of reports of unsafe driving — all of which are under investigation, according to Rogers.
The numbers were recorded by the CHP’s Buellton Office, which patrols Highway 154 from the north end of Highway 101 to Paradise Road, while the Santa Barbara CHP patrols the section that runs east from Paradise Road to Highway 101 in Santa Barbara.
“It’s going to come down to unsafe speeds, turning movements and animals cross the roads,” Rogers said of the highway dangers.
Additionally, Rogers told motorists to be aware of firefighters and police patrol vehicles along the side of the road and to give them space.
The westbound direction of Highway 154 from Santa Barbara to the Santa Ynez Valley is a different story, however.
Officials at the CHP Santa Barbara Office haven’t received many calls for incidents heading up the mountain toward the Santa Ynez Valley, but the going is slow, according to Officer Jonathan Gutierrez.
Traffic seems to become congested in the eastbound direction during the morning, as drivers head into Santa Barbara, while the opposite is also true in the afternoon, Gutierrez added.
“It’s just people going so slow that there’s not really much to do,” Gutierrez said, adding that his office has deployed extra officers and increased patrols along Highway 154.
In addition, Gutierrez asked people to avoid driving near the area of the fire and for motorists to adjust their vehicle’s air-conditioning settings while driving through smoke.
Specifically, drivers should switch their air-conditioning settings to “cycle” or “recirculate” in order to avoid drawing smoky air into the car, which could affect driving ability, Gutierrez said.