Trouble In Paradise

The huge wildfire had barely stopped licking at the edges of this island resort town when business owners and residents turned their attention to another catastrophe: damage to the local economy.

With thousands of acres burned and firefighting still under way, tourists were barred from Catalina Island until at least Tuesday — well past the Mother's Day weekend that had been expected to jump-start the summer season.

An average of 1 million tourists a year pump $96 million annually into the island about 20 miles off the Southern California coast, a vacation paradise with snorkeling, scuba diving, golf and hiking in an ecologically diverse terrain.

Wayne Griffin, president and CEO of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce, estimated that the ban on visitors would cost Avalon, the island's only significant town, a half-million dollars in just a few days.

"Until some of these things stabilize, we're probably not a good place for visitors," he said. "It's a small price to pay when you consider what we saved."

Business owners, who rely on tourists to keep their hotels, bars and restaurants humming, braced for a slow start to the season even as firefighters succeeded in stopping the fire's charge toward the town.

The wildfire, which began Thursday, scorched the western edge of the crescent-shaped Avalon Harbor and for a time threatened the town, sending residents racing for evacuation ferries.

Downtown, just a block from a sparkling harbor bobbing with sailboats and luxury yachts, bed-and-breakfast owner Dart DeBarros fretted over cancellations that stretched into the coming week. He lost seven of eight reservations for the Mother's Day weekend and other guests were phoning to cancel and get their 10-percent deposits back, he said.

They were worried that Catalina's rugged beauty was ruined.

"I'm going to lose quite a bit of revenue," said DeBarros. "I hope it's not a long-term thing. The whole island depends on tourism. It's the start of the season right now."

Others worried that out-of-town guests seeing the news coverage would believe, incorrectly, that the entire interior of the 76-square-mile island had burned.

In fact, the vast interior was unscathed and most wildlife probably was untouched, said Bob Rhein, spokesman for the Catalina Island Conservancy, which owns most of the island and conducts Jeep eco-tours through the area.

Catalina is famous for its wild bison herd and native wildlife, including bald eagles and a variety of plant life.

Scientists were relieved to discover that four eaglets, which hatched in the wild within the last year, were safe in their clifftop nests.

The fate of the Catalina Island fox, which was rescued from the brink of extinction, remains a top concern. There are currently 500 native foxes on the island after a population crash in the late 1990s from a disease outbreak.

Scientists won't know how the foxes fared until they track them. The foxes, which tend to hide in dens with their pups, are fitted with radio transmitter collars that sound a "mortality beep" after an animal has not moved for more than 12 hours.

"We'll have a better idea about the fox once the fire's out and we're able to scan the island with our antenna from the air," Rhein said.

In the coming weeks, scientists plan to fence off large swaths of the island to survey how animal and plant species survived.

Several years ago, scientists were surprised to find California grass growing near the island's airport after a lightning-sparked brush fire. The species hadn't flourished in over a century and scientists thought it was extinct.

"When fire burns, things regenerate and it's a good thing, ultimately," Rhein said.

The latest blaze briefly displaced a large number of deer, which wandered around city streets Thursday night.

Bison tend to cluster in wilderness away from the flames and should not be affected, scientists say.

"Bison are faster than you think. They are actually very fast, nimble animals," Rhein said. "It wouldn't be hard for them to see the flames coming and move out of the way."

Business owners, who have less flexibility, hoped the same would be true for them.

"People have short memories and I think we'll be OK," said Russ Armstrong, who owns three restaurants in downtown Avalon. "When all is said and done, it's going to be a loss of million of dollars, but very little property was lost and no one was injured, so we have a lot to be thankful for."
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