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Catalina fire lays siege to Avalon

Hundreds of residents and tourists are forced to flee the island.

May 11, 2007|Louis Sahagun and Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writers

A roaring fire fueled by winds and dry brush burned a path through Santa Catalina Island and reached the edges of Avalon on Thursday night, prompting an urgent evacuation of hundreds of island residents and tourists.

At least 10 structures and more than 4,000 acres had burned by 10:40 p.m. despite an aerial and ground assault by firefighters that included crews shipped onto the island on military hovercraft and helicopters from Camp Pendleton.

A small armada of ferries loaded hundreds of people at Avalon Harbor and took them more than 20 miles to San Pedro and Long Beach, where shelters were set up.

Avalon residents who stayed in the historic resort town suffered widespread power outages and a loss of water supply. Those who could hosed down their roofs and anxiously watched the 30- to 40-foot flames push toward the city.

"These houses are so close together it won't take much for the fire to jump from one to another," said Joseph Hernandez, 44, a quarry worker who was spraying water on his roof just before 8 p.m. "So wherever this hose reaches, that's where I'm watering. And if the fire reaches town, I'm going to the quarry because rocks don't burn."

Minutes later, the fire made another advance toward town, with enormous flames roaring near the high school and cemetery in a neighborhood with many vintage wood-frame and stucco homes. Fire officials said several homes and businesses were among the buildings lost.

"This is it," said resident Terri Hernandez. "It's on its way now."

Assistant City Manager Pete Woolson gave a bleak appraisal after driving through smoke-choked Avalon: "I hope they can hold it off."

Several hundred people gathered near the town port, waiting to be evacuated. Many had backpacks and suitcases bulging with belongings.

"I've lived here 53 years and I've never seen anything like this in my life," said Michael Mead, manager of Island Rentals. "It's pretty scary. This happened 100 years ago, and it's happening again. You can see the flames now coming over the ridge into town. It's horrible."

It was the second major fire to hit a parched Southern California this week and comes as the region is experiencing the driest year on record. A fire engulfed Griffith Park on Tuesday, destroying about a quarter of the hilly urban refuge before being brought under control Wednesday night.

The Catalina fire broke out about 12:30 p.m. and was fanned by winds gusting up to 20 mph. About 100 firefighters battled the blaze initially, aided by four water-dropping helicopters. Three air tankers joined the fight, swooping down and dropping fire retardant on the fast-moving flames. But it was clearly not enough as the fire moved relentlessly toward the island's largest town. Avalon has a permanent population of 3,200 that grows to more than 10,000 on weekends and in the summer.

Dan Teckenoff, publisher of the Catalina Islander newspaper, said the fire began near the tower of radio station KBRT-AM 740. He said one firefighter was reportedly injured in the early going and evacuated by air. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

"There's an eerie glow over the town," Teckenoff said. "We need to leave."

About 2 p.m., emergency sirens blared over Avalon -- an urgent call for volunteers to report for duty. An hour later firefighters were traversing Avalon streets with bullhorns telling people to evacuate.

The streets were filled with pickup trucks loaded with furniture tied down with ropes. Tourist-industry workers also gathered their belongings and prepared to evacuate.

On the mainland, fire units began getting help to the island. State and county fire crews and engines were being sent to Camp Pendleton to be carried to the island by hovercraft, said Daniel Berlant of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Others firefighters boarded ferries that were heading to the island from the mainland. By midafternoon, ferries were restricted to firefighters and residents.

Standing at the bow of the Catalina Express ferry as it pulled into Avalon Harbor, Avalon volunteer Firefighter Ryan Ramming, 33, surveyed flames just a mile north of the city and said, "Oh, man. This is the biggest fire I've ever seen this close to town. A lot of older people live on the fire side of Avalon.

"It just doesn't seem real. It's the driest year in decades, and it's going to be a long night," he said.

As he spoke, smoke cast long dark shadows on the sea amid eerie amber light as ash fell like light snow over Avalon. Nearby, dozens of firefighters prepared to join the battle.

About 7:30 p.m., the fire moved over a ridge and down the hill toward the city, the flames only a quarter of a mile away in some spots. A dozen hotel workers walked down to the waterfront, covering their faces with towels, bandanas, scarves and jacket sleeves

Several residents were on rooftops hosing down their homes as the fire marched toward town. City workers began telling residents they might have to evacuate the entire island.

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