Eintime Conversion for education and research 06-18-2007 @ 04:58:07
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Wildfire erupts on Calif. resort island

AVALON, Calif. (AP) — A wind-driven wildfire threatened Santa Catalina Island's main city Thursday, and residents and visitors were urged to leave the resort isle more than 20 miles off Southern California.

Flames towered at the edge of Avalon at dusk as hundreds of people lined up at its harbor to board a ferry back to the mainland. Many covered their faces with towels and bandanas as ashes fell.

"The city is threatened right now," Los Angeles County fire Capt. Ron Haralson said.

The blaze scorched more than 500 acres, including a commercial building and several storage buildings, but no homes had been destroyed as of Thursday night.

Smoke hung over Avalon's quaint crescent harbor, the landmark 1929 Catalina Casino and homes, restaurants and tiny hotels that cling to slopes rising sharply above the waterfront. The scene belied the idyllic image of the island cultivated in its 1930s and '40s heyday as a playground for movie stars and in The Four Preps' 1950s hit "26 Miles."

Part of the city was under a mandatory evacuation order, Haralson said. Visitors were directed to the historic art deco Casino that rises over one end of the harbor, while residents were sent to another part of the harbor.

The island's school and hospital voluntarily evacuated earlier, Teckenoff said.

The Catalina Express ferry service added a third evening departure from Avalon, said spokeswoman Elaine Vaughn. Each vessel can carry up to 400 people.

The blaze erupted at about 12:30 p.m. five miles east of the island's airport. It was fanned by winds moving at 15 mph and gusts of up to 20 mph, Haralson said.

"That's not good, not when it's dry and the terrain is hard to access by ground," he said.

About 160 firefighters, aided by four water-dropping helicopters, were battling the blaze. Three air tankers swooped low over ridges and canyons to drop lines of orange fire retardant ahead of the flames. One county firefighter was overcome by smoke and hospitalized in stable condition.

State and county fire crews and engines were being shipped from to the island by hovercraft from the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton, said Daniel Berlant, a state forestry and fire protection department spokesman.

The state also received permission to use National Guard helicopters to fly 70 inmate firefighters across the channel.

Catalina is a long, narrow island covering 76 square miles and is served by 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.

Resident Steve Adams said he was watching from his deck as helicopters dropped water on flames burning down a ridge toward town.

"Half the town has already been evacuated," Adams said by telephone.

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

"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."

A lack of rainfall has made Southern California especially susceptible to wildfires like the one that hit Griffith Park this week, threatening its landmark observatory and zoo.

Cooler nighttime temperatures helped firefighters rein in the 817-acre park blaze.

By Thursday, firefighters had the fire zone close to contained and were working on smoldering tree stumps and clearing away smoky debris. Still, officials cautioned that a sudden change in the weather could stoke remaining embers.

Authorities were still trying to determine the cause of the park fire.

They questioned a man who said he had fallen asleep in the park smoking a cigarette and woke up with his shirt on fire. The mayor said the man remained a person of interest, but officials said the fire did not appear to have been intentionally set.

"At this point, there's no indication that it was anything but an accident," Battalion Chief John Miller said.

Aside from the booming white letters that mark Hollywood, Griffith Park's most famous landmark is the Griffith Observatory, where James Dean's character in "Rebel Without a Cause" learned about the solar system.

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06-18-2007 @ 04:58:07