Wildfires Threaten Catalina

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AVALON, Calif. (AP) – Firefighters struggled early Friday to prevent a wildfire from reaching homes on the edge of Santa Catalina Island’s main city as residents and visitors fled the resort isle off the Southern California coast.

The blaze broke out Thursday afternoon on the island more than 20 miles off the coast. Flames threatened the city limits of Avalon, where hundreds of people lined up at the harbor Thursday night to board ferries back to the mainland. Many covered their faces with towels and bandanas as ashes fell.

A few homes burned but firefighters were protecting other properties late into the night, Avalon Fire Chief Steven Hoefs said. About 1,200 homes were under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders.

“We’re hanging in for now,” Chief Hoefs said.

The blaze that began five miles east of the island’s airport grew to 4,000 acres, feeding on dry brush as winds steadily blew throughout the day and into the night. Winds later calmed and the air grew moist, although the threat remained.

An orange inferno loomed behind the quaint crescent harbor, landmark 1929 Catalina Casino and homes, restaurants and tiny hotels clinging to slopes above the waterfront.

A commercial building and several warehouse structures burned, and 175 utility customers lost electricity when power poles caught on fire.

Overnight, Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters were ferrying in firefighters – 32 at a time. Hand crews were being positioned at the city’s edge to protect homes.

“We’re on defense mode for now,” Chief Hoefs said.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department and the state shipped in firefighters and equipment. Dozens of fire engines arrived aboard giant military hovercraft from the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton.

At least 160 firefighters, aided by four water-dropping helicopters and three retardant-dropping air tankers, battled flames through most of Thursday. One county firefighter, overcome by smoke, was hospitalized in stable condition.

In Avalon, authorities used a bullhorn to urge people to evacuate and head to the beach. Visitors were directed to the historic art deco Casino until it lost power, while residents were sent to another harbor site.

The Catalina Express ferry service added several night departures of 400-passenger vessels from Avalon. Hundreds of residents and visitors boarded the ferries to reach the mainland.

A family of eight said they had just enough time to pack some clothes and personal papers before fleeing.

“I’m scared,” said Angelica Romero, 30, holding her 7-month-old daughter. “But what’s important is I have my children. The rest doesn’t matter.”

At the mainland port of Long Beach, island resident Kathy Troeger arrived on a ferry with her three children and a friend’s daughter. Her husband, a captain in county fire’s Baywatch division, stayed behind to help fight the fire.

“It was like a nightmare when we left,” she said. “You couldn’t breathe and ash was falling like snow.”

An evacuation center was set up at Cabrillo High School, where about 85 people had checked in, according to the Red Cross.

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.

Only 2 inches of rain have fallen on Catalina since January.

A long, narrow island, Catalina covers 76 square miles and is served by helicopters and ferry boats from Los Angeles, Long Beach and other mainland harbors.

Avalon has a population of 3,200 that swells to more than 10,000 on weekends and in summer, according to the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.

Most the island is owned by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy and is home to a various wildlife.

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Associated Press writers Daisy Nguyen and Christina Almeida in Los Angeles and Gillian Flaccus in Long Beach contributed to this report.


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