Maintenance expedited Highway 101 fuel spill cleanup during fire evacuations


A gasoline tanker spilled 6,000 gallons of fuel spilled across all northbound lanes of U.S. Highway 101 in western Santa Barbara during the Thomas Fire evacuations. Although a flammable liquid clean-up of this magnitude would generally take 48 to 72 hours, Caltrans rallied the troops, and opened all lanes of this critical evacuation route within 24 hours.

Caltrans Santa Barbara Maintenance crews quickly cleaned up the 6,000 gallons of fuel spilled on U.S. Highway 101 as residents were urged to evacuate the area due to the Thomas Fire.

Photo by District 5

By Christopher Chalk
Santa Barbara Maintenance Superintendent

The largest fire in California’s history, the Thomas Fire, started in Ventura County Dec. 4, destroying hundreds of homes before spreading to Santa Barbara County. On Dec. 15, Caltrans’ Santa Barbara Maintenance crews helped control traffic for the eastern Santa Barbara and Montecito evacuations. The Thomas Fire threatened hundreds of structures, including my home.

At the same time, Caltrans responded to a gasoline tanker spill on northbound U.S. Highway 101 at Turnpike Road in western Santa Barbara. An estimated 6,000 gallons of fuel spilled across all lanes. 

Our Santa Barbara and Buellton Maintenance forces had been working 12-hour shifts, day and night, since Dec. 6. They had been manning check points from State Route (SR) 150, along SR-192 and on either side of SR-154 in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez – all under intense and hazardous conditions.

Crews were professional – and more importantly – compassionate in the face of this disaster. This, in and of itself, is commendable, but the gasoline spill taxed us beyond our local resources. That’s when we had to ask for assistance.

Having managed several major spills in my career as a hazmat specialist, I can tell you that a flammable liquid cleanup of this magnitude might take 48 to 72 hours under the best of circumstances, and these were dire circumstances. There was the emergency traffic control/detouring/messaging, wreckage clearing, drainage cleaning, contaminated soil excavation and repaving of the disintegrated pavement.

We had to accomplish all of that before we could safely open lanes to the traveling public – and did they ever want those lanes opened!  With the help of other Caltrans staff, we opened all lanes within 24 hours.  I can’t stress enough the importance of this accomplishment given that U.S. Highway 101 is a critical part of any and all evacuation plans for our community – my community.

Your efforts are to be lauded, and my gratitude cannot be put into words. I have never been more proud to be a part of this organization, or more appreciative of the dedication that each of you shows on a daily basis. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.