Catalina Fire Evacuees Begin Coming Home

Residents of the city of Avalon, Calif., on Santa Catalina Island return to their homes Friday, May 11, 2007. They were evacuated late Thursday because of a raging wildfire on the island. Business owners estimated that of the 3,800 people who evacuated the island Thursday by ferry, some 90 percent were the maids, waiters and cooks that keep the place humming. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian) AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian

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 six-square-mile blaze was only 10 percent contained, the wildfire and thick smoke was confined to the tinder-dry brush in the mountains of this narrow island off California.

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."

Getting so many trucks onto the island was a feat in itself, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker. Santa Catalina sits 26 miles off the Southern California coast. Only a handful of firefighters live on the island, so fighting this wildfire has been a logistical nightmare. The same boats that brought families off Catalina transported mainland firefighters to the inferno. Marines from nearby Camp Pendelton provided a giant hovercraft to ferry in trucks and equipment.

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 on 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 determined.

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."

One relic of that era are the herds of bison that were brought over for filming and later released.

Environmentalists said it was too early to tell how the blaze affected the island's overall ecosystem, home to rare animal and plant life, including the Catalina Island fox.

But four bald eaglets that hatched earlier this year without human help were unharmed, according to Bob Rhein, a spokesman for the Catalina Island Conservancy which owns most of the island. The eagles were wiped out decades ago by chemical contamination.

Just days before and about 50 miles away on the mainland, crews beat back flames in Los Angeles' major park that singed a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes. That was the third menacing fire in the Hollywood Hills this spring — and wildfire season here isn't supposed to heat up until the fall.

Around the country, firefighters battled a wildfire in Georgia and northern Florida that burned 179,940 acres — or 281 square miles — since a lightning strike ignited it a week ago.

The fire, which started last Saturday in the middle of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, took just six days to grow larger than a wildfire that has burned 116,480 acres of Georgia forest and swampland over more than three weeks.

In Georgia, the fire posed a potential threat to the tiny city of Fargo, where 380 people live about eight miles west of the Okefenokee Swamp. No evacuations had been ordered Friday.

About 570 homes in northern Columbia County, Fla., were evacuated overnight, and heavy smoke blanketed the area. A haze was seen in Miami, more than 300 miles away.

To the north, a wildfire grew to nearly 86 square miles in northeastern Minnesota and across the border into Canada, cutting power and phone lines to many resorts and lake homes.

The fire, driven by high wind Thursday and fed by drought-parched forest, has already destroyed 45 structures and was threatening about 200 more. The chance of desperately needed rainfall was still days away.
  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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