The tiny picturesque seaside town of Avalon on Catalina Island was nearly demolished by a massive brush fire that began Thursday, May 10th, at 12:30 in the afternoon.
Due to the compromised logistics that come with life on a 21-mile-long island, situated over 20 miles from major resources, the blaze got the opportunity to build a head of steam and do major damage to the landscape. The fire was contained by Tuesday afternoon, May 15th, but not before 4,750 acres of land would be left black and singed to bare earth.
According to a Los Angeles County Fire Department official, the fire was started when a workman was cutting some cable that caused a spark, which in turn jumped into some nearby brush that caught fire.
With a 20-mile-per-hour wind on top of the island, the small fire took on a life of its own in moments. It was reported that the blaze went from two acres to 80 in a matter of five minutes.
With a strong wind blowing towards town, the fire spread rapidly and Avalon residents began to understand in a more realistic way the frightening scenario they were all a part of. When smoke and flames became visible to the townspeople and ashes began to fill the air, a mild panic began to swell though the village residents.
“It was then that people started to panic,” said Angie Berra, a liveaboard boater who operates a small business in the town of Avalon. “It was a mad rush down our street of people and their golf carts [Avalon doesnít allow cars] with as much personal stuff as they could grab.”
Uncomfortable with the amount of ash in the air, combined with the impending threat of a raging fire, people started to evacuate while the county fire department began to overcome one of the more challenging logistical situations it had ever run up on.
The town has ten staff firemen and 25 volunteers, but it would soon be filled with hundreds of firefighters battling the heat and even some inmates helping to clear brush.
“The problem with this fire was logistics,” said Los Angeles Fire County Department Inspector Ed Lozano. “Getting all the men and equipment over to the island and supply all the units — itís a lot of work.”
Lozano continued, “We have a plan for Catalina and we implemented that plan and it worked fairly well.”
After finally managing to transfer fire engines (via Navy vessels) onto the island and the manpower needed for the battle, the county fire department would wage a full-on war at the unruly inferno.
At any one time there were multiple helicopters dropping water, fixed-wing aircraft dumping retardant and hundreds of foot soldiers hosing and clearing brush.
As hard as they worked through that Thursday evening, it was anyoneís guess if the storied little city of Avalon would be spared.
“It was kind of a helpless feeling,” said Berra. “When it turned dark, there were just flames over town and it seemed like they were getting closer and closer.”
By morning the firefighting forces had turned a corner and it was a safe bet that they would be able to keep the fire at bay and away from the population and its buildings. Although one single-family dwelling was destroyed, four outbuildings were damaged and four outbuildings were destroyed, no substantial injuries were reported.
Berra was awestruck by the effort of the visiting firefighters for their courage and their graciousness. There were some firemen who joked that Catalina was one of the few locations they had worked where they actually gained weight from all the hospitality and gratitude they were offered.
“They were thanking us when we were making food for them,” said Berra. “I looked at them and I said, ëYou guys — no thank you. Without you our town would have been totally gone.í”
Now the questions begin about whether to leave the land to fend for itself or consider some sort of rehabilitation. Studies and research need to be conducted to determine what is the best tack to take.
“Fires arenít necessarily bad,” said Lozano. “They go through an area and help thin it out. Itís a cyclical process that happens every 100 years or so. There may not be anything to do — the land will rehabilitate itself at times.”
In the meantime, Avalon is slowly getting back to normal. Residents have returned, cruise ships are back on rotation and local boaters are once again picking up moorings just in time for another summer in one of the most beautiful resort islands in the world.