SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The Santa Barbara area California Highway Patrol decided to address the concerns many residents expressed regarding the closure of northbound U.S. Highway 101 at Seacliff in Ventura County on December 16, 2017.
As winds picked up Saturday morning pushing the Thomas Fire towards populated areas, thousands of residents in Santa Barbara and surrounding areas were forced to evacuate. It was during these moments of high stress and uncertainty that the California Highway Patrol decided to shut down the freeway to help these evacuees get away from the approaching inferno faster.
On their Facebook page, the CHP - Santa Barbara explains the thought and process behind the decision to shut down the freeway that day. That CHP statement in part reads:
On December 16, 2017, there were evacuation orders in the areas of upper Carpinteria and Montecito. The California Highway Patrol closed many intersections and the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department evacuated each residence. The decision was made to shut down US 101 northbound at Sea Cliff to make it easier to for the approximately 15,000 evacuees to enter US 101 northbound.
The Thomas Fire was moving towards the city of Santa Barbara. Safety of the public was our number one concern.
We had to expedite the flow of traffic to assist residents with the transition to shelter at UCSB.
We were also dealing with another incident located at US 101 northbound at Turnpike Road. There was an overturned tanker truck leaking gasoline onto the freeway causing the freeway to dissipate. There ended up being a hard closure with multiple detours as traffic was at a standstill at US 101 northbound at Turnpike Road. We feared people would be stuck on the freeway as the surface streets became impassible due to the evacuations.
The freeway was closed a little over 24 hours from 9 p.m. on December 15, 2017, to 9:25 p.m. on December 16, 2017. As the Thomas Fire was getting closer to the city of Santa Barbara it reminded the command staff of another incident.
The incident CHP is referring to is the North Fire, which broke out in July 2015 at the Cajon Pass just north of state Route 138 in San Bernardino County and scorched 4,250 acres.
The fast-moving blaze prompted the full closure of I-15 resulting in a gridlock in which dozens of cars were either destroyed or damaged as the fire jumped I-15. Unable to get out of gridlock, motorists were forced to abandon their cars and flee the flames as fast as they could.
The CHP Facebook post continued:
The Santa Barbara CHP commander, Captain Pontes, made the decision to turn vehicles around to protect the public and their property from possible fire danger. Captain Pontes drove down to Sea Cliff and evaluated the situation. She looked at the fire patterns, consulted with Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and Santa Barbara County Fire Department and decided to open the freeway when it was safe to do so.
Please realize public safety was the main concern. We appreciate the support and understanding from the public during this difficult time.
The Thomas Fire is currently on its way to becoming the largest fire in California history.