Firefighters fend off island flames
AVALON, Calif. ” Firefighters turned back flames that threatened Santa Catalina Island’s main city and some residents planned to return to their homes Friday after thousands were forced to evacuate a day earlier.
The wildfire was 4,000 acres, or more than 6 square miles, and was only 10 percent contained early Friday. But worries were eased by the day’s favorable weather forecast and the arrival of dozens of fire trucks and air tankers on the narrow, mountainous island 30 miles off Los Angeles.
“Everyone is working very hard to make sure that the people are safe and the animals are safe,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Friday.
Most of the 76-square-mile island is owned by a land conservancy, home to wildlife including the Catalina Island fox, North American bison and bald eagle.
Flames that had menaced the main city of Avalon the night before were no longer visible from there on Friday. But a layer of ash and a puff of smoke that rose from a hillside overlooking the crescent harbor were reminders of a harrowing night.
“The risk has been reduced significantly,” Fire Chief Steven Hoefs said. “Most of the structures have been protected.”
The blaze broke out Thursday afternoon in the island’s rugged interior, feeding on dry brush and fanned by a steady wind into the night.
One home and a few small structures in the canyons outside the city burned.
About 3,800 residents and tourists fled, Schwarzenegger said. As people lined up at the harbor Thursday night to board ferries to the mainland, many covered their faces with towels and bandanas to ward off ashes.
Resident Kathy Troeger fled with her three children and a friend’s daughter, while her husband, a fire captain, stayed behind to fight the blaze.
“It was like a nightmare when we left,” she said after arriving at the mainland port of Long Beach. “You couldn’t breathe, and ash was falling like snow.”
Anita Bussing, a therapist who has a second home on the island, described a sky “completely gray with orange streaks.”
The helicopters were flying all over the place,” she said. “People were freaking out, children were crying.”
Island hotel worker Susana Garcia, 22, waited long into the night at the dock looking for her father. She had gone to the mainland to do errands before the fire started and was unable to reach her father, who had stayed behind.
“I’ve been asking everybody if they’ve seen him, but I haven’t found him yet,” Garcia said.
Dozens of fire engines arrived through the night from as far away as Fresno, carried by giant military hovercraft from the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton.
One firefighter was overcome by inhalation and was in stable condition.
Wind that reached 20 mph Thursday calmed and were expected to blow the fire westward, away from Avalon and toward the island’s sparsely populated center.
Despite being well offshore, Catalina has been left parched by the lack of rainfall that has made the rest of Southern California particularly susceptible to wildfires like the one in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park this week.
Television actor Steven W. Bailey, who lives near the park, had gone to Catalina with his wife to escape the smoke and heat on Thursday. As they approached the island, he spotted the smoke of the island blaze, and when they arrived, they weren’t allowed to check into their hotel.
“It just descended into more and more fire, more and more smoke, more and more ash,” Bailey told KABC-TV.
Firefighters were still working Friday to surround what remained of the Griffith Park fire, which briefly chased people from homes and threatened the park’s landmark observatory and zoo.
Elsewhere around the country, firefighters battled the second Georgia wildfire to burn more than 100,000 acres as gusty wind spread the fast-moving blaze further into northern Florida and toward the tiny town of Fargo west of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Officials said the wildfire, ignited Saturday by lightning, had grown so rapidly that after six days it already rivaled a fire that has scorched 116,480 acres, or 182 square miles, of southeastern Georgia forest and swampland since April 16 ” the state’s largest wildfire on record.
About 570 homes in northern Columbia County, Fla., were evacuated overnight, and heavy smoke blanketed the area. A haze was seen in Miami, more than 300 miles away.
To the north, a wildfire grew to nearly 86 square miles in northeastern Minnesota and across the border into Canada, cutting power and phone lines to many resorts and lake homes.
The fire, driven by high wind Thursday and fed by drought-parched forest, has already destroyed 45 structures and was threatening about 200 more. The chance of desperately needed rainfall was still days away.