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Flames force couple to forge new wedding strategy

May 12, 2007|Seema Mehta and Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writers

It's a good thing, as they often say at weddings, that love is already patient and kind. For Katie Wrighton and Kurt Edwards' sake, it also needed to be flexible and fireproof.

Twenty-four hours before the couple were scheduled to tie the knot on picturesque Santa Catalina Island, the cake was missing in action. The minister was piloting the church van, helping people evacuate from remote Hamilton Cove.

The rehearsal dinner site had been turned into a fire camp. Nearly half of the wedding guests were stuck in Long Beach. And the wedding planner had decamped for the mainland. "Last we heard, though, she's on her way back," said Edwards, with youth's every-cloud-of-smoke-has-a-silver-lining optimism.

No, that's not a hunk of burning love you see out there along the western horizon; that's Catalina on fire. But Edwards, 20, and Wrighton, 19, hoped to marry here anyway, if not today as they had planned for the last 18 months, then Sunday at the very latest.

So instead of spending their final unencumbered day like other soon-to-be-married people, the couple from the Sierra foothills town of Groveland and their extended families struggled to pull off an island wedding under a thick veil of smoke and ash.

"It's so surreal," said Lindsay Wrighton, 26, big sister and maid of honor. "Helicopters going by and smoke going up and my sister's crying and we don't have a cake....

"We're in crisis mode and trying all of our options," she said, marveling at the happy couple's grace under fire. "Right now my sister can have her wedding here any time Saturday or Sunday. A lot of other weddings have canceled."

No kidding.

Because a scant 48 hours before the scheduled nuptials, the groom, like a lot of others here, looked up and saw the first sign of trouble.

The fire, which began near a radio tower, went on to burn thousands of acres and several structures, threaten historic Avalon and force the evacuation of hundreds of residents and tourists, who boarded ferries Thursday night in a race to safety.

Some members of Edwards' extended family had already made their way from Maryland to their island hotel Thursday, only to be evacuated several hours later. So they moved into the Wrighton family condo, threw a party and watched the flames.

Not everyone else had it quite so good. Brother-of-the-bride Bobby Wrighton and his family arrived in Long Beach at 3 a.m. Friday from Monterey, hoping to take the first ferry to Catalina so they could join up with the wedding party. No such luck.

Just as that group was getting to Long Beach, a caravan of Edwards' and Wrighton's friends was leaving the Yosemite area, where they live, to make the nine-hour drive south. By midday Friday, they were languishing at the Catalina Express terminal too, hoping to find a way to the island.

But the ferry service's website said: "Due to circumstances beyond our control, visitor transportation to Catalina Island has been suspended."

So Lindsay Wrighton spent the afternoon frantically searching for boats to charter, because lots of people had to be moved -- in one direction or another. And soon.

If the wedding was to go on as planned, the 20 stragglers had to be transported from Long Beach to Avalon. The Wrightons have one boat. With its festive load of flowers, decorations and a fluffy white wedding dress, it would seat just six or seven, the bride figured. The trip is about an hour each way. You do the math.

Plan B was to move the 35 people who'd already made it to Catalina over to Newport Beach, where the wedding could be celebrated in a relative's church. Same boat. Same trip. Same math. Same problem.

For his part, Pastor Jason Gant of the Catalina Bible Church was pulling for an Avalon celebration. Sure he'd spent every moment since the fire began helping move evacuees and fulfilling his duties as disaster communications director for the island's Civilian Emergency Response Team.

"But I can get 30 minutes off to marry someone," he said. He even had a backdrop picked for that once-in-a-lifetime bride-and-groom shot, the church grounds near the fire's edge

"You can get a good shot of the bride and groom and the fire and the smoke behind them. You want a picture that sells," Gant advised. "We won't let a fire ruin their wedding!"

By late Friday, Gant was right about one thing. The fire didn't ruin the young couple's wedding, but it definitely changed it.

What the maid of honor found with her fevered dialing was that it would cost upward of $4,000 to get the wedding party to the wedding party, money Edwards and Wrighton just don't have.

While Catalina Express would ferry only residents to the island, Edwards said, the company was happy to deliver the revelers safely to the mainland Friday night. The Newport Beach church is available today. A block of hotel rooms was booked.

The AWOL wedding cake -- multiple layers with pearlized seashells and a coral reef of white chocolate painted a soft turquoise (the wedding color) -- never showed. But that's OK too. There's a gourmet cupcake shop next to the wedding party's new hotel, and a couple of hundred were ordered. Blueberry with cream cheese frosting. Chocolate with peanut butter. Yellow cake with caramel ganache.

Ain't love sweet?

Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

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