Fire Sweeps Across Calif. Island

Smoke rises from a wildfire burning in the hills of Catalina Island. Firefighters were able to stop the blaze from reaching the main city of Avalon.
Smoke rises from a wildfire burning in the hills of Catalina Island. Firefighters were able to stop the blaze from reaching the main city of Avalon. (By J. Emilio Flores -- Getty Images)
By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 12, 2007

AVALON, Calif., May 11 -- Santa Catalina Island, a sleepy tourist haven where wild buffalo outnumber cars, was engulfed in flames early Friday as a fast-moving wildfire forced thousands of residents to use ferries to evacuate.

By Friday afternoon, the blaze on the tiny isle 22 miles from Los Angeles was 35 percent contained, though 4,200 acres had burned. Firefighters said Avalon, the island's primary town, would be spared, and they lifted evacuation orders.

"The plan is basically to attack it with everything we've got," Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Edward Osorio said.

The driest rainy season on record has kicked off the region's annual fire season early, with brush fires reported every hot or windy day since the year began. The Catalina fire marked the second time in just a few days that a blaze endangered a Southern California landmark. In central Los Angeles, embers still smoldered in Griffith Park, where the Los Angeles Zoo had to be evacuated and flames lit the sky behind the Griffith Observatory earlier this week.

Catalina Island, like many areas of open chaparral here, burns periodically, but since most of the island is wild the fires usually do not threaten homes or require massive firefighting efforts. This time, however, was different.

"I've been on the island since '63, and I've never seen anything like this. It was terrifying," said Kathy Lomax Brisco, who evacuated her apartment Thursday but did not leave the island.

Throughout Thursday night, 3,500 people were evacuated as the local ferry company abandoned its schedule and shuttled continuous loads of people, officials said. Family members who were separated from one another reunited at an evacuation center in a Long Beach, Calif., high school gym, where the Red Cross housed 138 people, most of them hotel workers and their children.

On Friday, authorities began allowing people to return to the island.

Fidel Razo, 43, and his wife and daughter were among the first to arrive. They evacuated with nothing but important papers and spent the night at a cousin's house near Los Angeles.

"She was crying and freaking out," Razo said of his wife as they rode the ferry back to the island. "She was thinking everything was going to be burned."

Razo said he stayed more calm, but, "you worry, you know. I couldn't sleep all night."

As the boat approached the harbor, white smoke was visible, rising from the hillsides and steep valleys. Blue sky gave way to heavy brown smoke, but the town was unscathed. "It looks okay. Thank God," Razo said.

Firefighters battled Friday to control the fire in very steep and inaccessible terrain. The island has one road into the interior from the harbor village of Avalon, home to 3,100.

There are only four fire engines permanently on the island, officials said, so equipment was brought in overnight by hovercraft from the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, across the channel. Four engines at a time were ferried in, and helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft dropped water in places fire crews could not access by foot.

Early Friday, temperatures dropped and humidity increased, aiding firefighters. "The only problem is visibility," Osorio said. "At night it's pitch black on the island. There's only moonlight. So it's very difficult when we have to hike into steep terrain."

Most people on the island get around with golf carts. Cars are restricted, and there is a 10-year waiting list to bring one to the island. A conservancy owns most of the land and monitors the wildlife, including hundreds of buffalo that have roamed there since they were abandoned by a film crew in 1924.

Despite the danger, Carlos Martinez, 14, a high school student from Avalon, said Catalina is a safe place to grow up. "That's the only thing that happens, is fires," he said. "It's safer than L.A. There's no shootings over there, no gangs."

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