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CATALINA FIRE: A NEW DAY

After such a huge threat, Avalon's loss is small

May 12, 2007|Seema Mehta and Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writers

Their night of fear behind them, Avalon residents began returning home Friday to find charred hillsides and their quaint island town blanketed in a layer of white, powdery ash.

The fire that had come within a few feet of engulfing shops and hillside homes on Santa Catalina Island had been beaten back after an all-out battle waged during the night.

Only a single house and six commercial buildings were lost, thanks to the efforts of firefighters who beat back the flames from the air and ground.

"Usually on the island, we don't talk about fire," said Alex Villagra, 38, manager of Luau Larry's, an Avalon bar. "But all people wanted to know last night was this: Is the fire going to hit town or not? I said, 'I don't think so.' But inside I was worried."

By late Friday afternoon, fire officials estimated that the fire was 35% contained, with full control expected by Tuesday. Mayor Robert Kennedy praised both Los Angeles County and military firefighters, whose numbers grew to about 700 people over the course of 24 hours.

"Without that response, we wouldn't be standing in front of you today," he said.

Weather forecasters predicted fair conditions with light winds in the coming days, good news for firefighters.

"The good Lord willing, the weather holds and the wind stays down, we're in pretty good shape," said county Supervisor Don Knabe.

Officials discouraged visitors from traveling to Avalon right away, pointing out that utility service had not been fully restored and that access to restaurants and hotels would be limited, with firefighters occupying many rooms.

"Until some of these things stabilize, we're probably not a real good place for visitors," said Wayne Griffin, director of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce.

Elsewhere on the island, there were reports that the second-largest tourist center, Two Harbors, was without power or telephone service because the fire had disrupted power lines.

The apparent victory over fire was the second within days in Southern California, where a quarter of historic Griffith Park burned earlier in the week. This has been the driest year on record in Southern California -- a condition that has led fire officials to predict that more major fires lie ahead.

The cause was still under investigation, although Steven Hofs, chief of the Avalon Fire Department, said contractors working on an inland radio tower may have inadvertently started the blaze.

The Catalina fire posed greater logistical difficulties than the Griffith Park blaze, because it required moving firefighters and equipment across the water from the mainland.

They arrived by ferryboat and military hovercraft as the fire raged out of control, quickly spreading over more than 4,200 acres of dried brush that covered the island's tawny hillsides. At one point late Thursday, the flames were so close to neighborhoods that many evacuees assumed their homes had burned.

Hundreds who had fled their homes or hotels returned Friday to find Avalon almost deserted, except for exhausted firefighters resting in the streets. With 30% to 40% of the workforce having been evacuated, most shops were closed.

C.C. Gallagher, an espresso bar and gallery, was open, but only to serve the firefighters who were bivouacked on the island. Owner Pamela Miller said she was coordinating with about half a dozen restaurants on the mainland to provide as much food as possible to the firefighters.

"We're extremely concerned about making sure we can do whatever is needed for the firemen," she said. "As long as we have enough people to stay open, we'll stay open."

Although the danger to Avalon was much diminished, firefighters worked in the rugged terrain surrounding the town, cutting fire lines.

"These crews are the backbone of the fight," said county Fire Department spokesman Scott Ross. "They're the front-line infantry."

The only home lost in the fire was a bungalow where Brad Wilson and his family lived. "We grabbed what we thought was important," said Wilson, chief marketing officer for Santa Catalina Island Co., which owns the house. "In hindsight, we would have taken a lot more."

Wilson said he and his family grabbed photos, passports, tax information and "not near enough clothes" when they were ordered to evacuate.

"I'm sure this will work out," he said. "This is a close-knit community."

With the fire at bay Friday, hotel and restaurant owners and shopkeepers were turning their attention to the economic effect on what should have been a profitable Mother's Day weekend.

"We have people who made reservations many months ago. We're telling them they can't get here," said Caroline Alderdice of the Catalina visitor center. "There's no fire danger in town, but the air is full of smoke."

The Chamber of Commerce's Griffin said the dearth of Mother's Day weekend business would be costly to merchants, with predicted losses of $500,000 -- a total he said was small considering how severe the damage might have been.

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