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Highway 101 partially reopens, but expect traffic headaches

7 June 2004

By JOSHUA MOLINA
NEWS-PRESSTAFF WRITER

As the Gaviota fire raged out of control on Sunday, blocking Highway 101 for the second straight day, a gush of rerouted cars spilled into the Santa Ynez Valley, clogging streets from Buellton to Highway 154 and leaving lost and frustrated motorists searching for a way home.

Two lanes of Highway 101, northbound and southbound, were opened to traffic about 7 p.m. Sunday -- welcome news to anyone who'd battled bumper-to-bumper traffic in the valley.

On the streets there, locals and tourists stared, some with binoculars, at the huge clouds of orange-tinged smoke in the sky high above the Santa Ynez Mountains.

On Highway 154, thousands of vehicles clogged the narrow, windy and mostly one-lane road that connects the Santa Ynez Valley to Santa Barbara. At least three traffic accidents added to the snarl on the highway.

The fire also stalled travelers coming from farther afield. Flames destroyed a bridge supporting Union Pacific railroad tracks near Gaviota State Park, forcing Amtrak to shuttle train passengers from Guadalupe and San Luis Obispo.

The Clean Air Express, which transports commuters from the North County to Santa Barbara, was expected to operate on a normal schedule today, as long as the fire, which had ripped through 7,500 acres by Sunday night, didn't shift directions.

Throughout the valley on Sunday, traffic jams prompted grumbles and questions.

"We're all trapped," said Mike McDonnell, who along with his wife Sue and friends, rode motorcycles from Ventura to Mattei's Tavern in Santa Ynez on Sunday. "We need to get a map and figure out which way to go. San Marcos Pass is horrible."

Mr. McDonnell was filling up at the Unocal 76 gas station, across from the Chumash Casino Resort. The service station, the last before Highway 154, was flooded with motorists who were rerouted from Highway 101, and attendants fielded repeated queries about the highway's closure.

Instead of joining the jam on Highway 154, Mr. McDonnell was considering driving north to use Highway 166 to get back to Ventura -- probably a three-hour diversion.

But he didn't give up hope of a quicker way.

"We're told there's a little, little road, somewhere around here," he said.

Businesses were also reeling from the fire's impact.

Gainey, a popular vineyard near Highway 154, saw the number of wine tasters dwindle because of the traffic jams.

"It has been pretty slow," said tasting room associate Nathan Prince. "A lot of people are just trying to get home."

In downtown Solvang, pedestrians peppered the visitor's bureau with questions about the fire, but remained calm.

"I think most people are just weathering the storm," said Alice Olguin, of the visitor's bureau. "There was one couple that was scheduled to stay in Santa Barbara and decided to stay here."

Simi Valley resident Christa Martinez hadn't heard about the fire when she headed to the Chumash Casino Resort on Sunday. She said it took her three hours to drive from Highway 154 to the casino.

Her advice to others?

"Come back next week."