May 12, 2007 in Nation/World

Firefighters keep blaze from Catalina town

Gillian Flaccus Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Firefighters travel via golf cart at Avalon on Santa Catalina Island off California’s coast on Friday. Avalon was mostly spared by the wildfire on the island.
(Full-size photo)

AVALON, Calif. – Water-dumping planes and helicopters helped beat back soaring flames that threatened this quaint Catalina Island town Friday, giving firefighters a victory that allowed nearly 4,000 evacuated residents to start coming home.

Even though the 6-square-mile blaze was only 35 percent contained, the wildfire and thick smoke were confined to the tinder-dry brush in the mountains of this narrow island more than 20 miles off Los Angeles.

Avalon’s cobblestone streets, brightly painted bungalows, landmark casino and tourist hotels were mostly spared, with only one home and several outbuildings burned. No one was seriously injured.

“Thank goodness the firefighters did get here because that made the difference,” said Martha Ashleigh, 61, who has lived on Catalina on and off for years. “We were watching from our balcony, and we could just see truck after truck go up there. They were just fabulous.”

A day earlier, flames bore down from the mountains, raining ash and chaos on the crescent harbor. Evacuated residents clambered onto ferries that passed U.S. Navy hovercrafts packed with fire trucks from the mainland.

Many were workers who cook and clean for vacationers. Others were at vacation homes as the summer tourist season geared up.

“It’s like a war zone. The skies turned completely gray with orange streaks. The helicopters were flying all over the place,” said Anita Bussing, a therapist whose other home is in Long Beach. “People were freaking out, children were crying.”

By Friday afternoon, one ferry full of residents was headed back to the island from Long Beach, and a relay of water-carrying helicopters saturated a hillside at the edge of town where smoke curled into the blue sky. The step appeared intended to extinguish any lingering hot spots.

The cause of the fire, which erupted Thursday afternoon in the 76-square-mile island’s rugged interior, had not yet been officially determined. But Avalon Fire Chief Steven Hoefs said the fire appeared to have been sparked as contractors worked on antennas at a radio station in the island’s interior.

The island’s relative isolation has proven a liability before. A 1915 fire that started in a hotel burned half the town’s buildings.

The island’s romantic vibe was memorialized in the 1958 hit “26 Miles (Santa Catalina).” Before private jets and third homes became standard fare for the rich and really famous, Santa Catalina was a celebrity haunt for the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Cecil B. DeMille.

About 300 movies have been shot on the island or in nearby waters, including “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Chinatown,” “Jaws” and “Apollo 13.”

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