California wildfire prompts evacuations near wineries, Neverland Ranch

A wildfire in the mountains above Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley has exploded to more than 16,000 acres, prompting evacuations near vineyards and Neverland Ranch.

The Lake fire was sparked near Zaca Lake on Friday afternoon just before 4 p.m. and quickly spread through dry grass, brush and timber, officials said. The fire was zero percent contained on Sunday.

The Sheriff’s Department expanded the evacuation area Saturday night along Figueroa Mountain Road near Neverland Ranch, once owned by the pop star Michael Jackson. More ground crews were dispatched to the area.

“Our goal is to keep [the fire] away from all those structures,” said Kenichi Haskett, the public information officer assigned to the firefighting operation. “It’s going to continue to grow.”

The fire was burning in the mountains above Foxen Canyon Road, where there are more than a dozen vineyards. Several wineries north of Los Olivos were closed Sunday after fire officials cut off access to the road.

But there was no need to evacuate, said Ashley Parker, co-owner of Fess Parker Winery.

Though she could see the glow at night north of the winery, the wind appeared to be taking the fire farther north, away from populated areas, Parker said.

The threat level was low enough that the youngsters were simply entertained by the fire helicopters sucking water from the vineyard reservoir, she said.

“My nieces and their husbands live on the ranch,” Parker said. “All the kids were getting a real thrill out of it. Those helicopter pilots are really amazing. So lucky to have great fire crews.”

The fire was fueled by low humidity and hot inland temperatures. When the fire started, a red flag warning was in place because of gusty winds. The wind has now calmed down, but temperatures remain high.

“With less wind, they can get aircraft in there to drop retardant,” said Joe Sirard, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard. “But it’s life threatening heat for these firefighters.”

He said the humidity was still in single digits in some areas of the fire, especially in the highest elevations. The cause of the fire is unknown.

Amid scorching temperatures, crews continued to battle several wildfires in inland areas across California. The largest is the Basin fire in Fresno County, which started June 26. The fire, which has burned 14,027 acres, was 60% contained on Sunday.

Crews also gained the upper hand on the French fire, which began on the Fourth of July and briefly threatened the town of Mariposa outside Yosemite National Park. The 908-acre fire, which temporarily triggered mandatory evacuations and closed State Route 140 leading into the park, stands at 60% containment.

The weather service has issued an excessive-heat warning until 9 p.m. on Wednesday for inland valleys from Cuyama in San Luis Obispo County down to the Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County. Forecasters say the highs along this stretch of inland California are expected to range from 106 to 116 degrees.

The relentless heat shattered records in some parts of the state on Saturday. Palmdale tied its all-time record of 115 degrees. Death Valley set a new record for July 6 with a high of 128 degrees.

On Saturday, a cooling trend prompted the weather service to call off excessive-heat advisories and warnings in many of the coastal areas.

In Los Olivos, vineyard managers said they were optimistic the fire would soon be contained. Parker said she expected her winery to reopen Monday.

“I really do believe the firefighters knocked it back and that area is going to be up to speed in a day,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is encourage people not to come. The town of Los Olivos is in good shape. Businesses are open. People are having a good time.”

Adrian De La Cruz, who works at Petros Winery closer to town, said customers were being seated indoors because of the air quality.

“The smoke is getting really bad today,” he said. “Yesterday it was raining ash.”

He said one fire patrol officer stopped by, but he did not have time to talk to him.

“We were busy,” he said.

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