Tourists can go back to Catalina

Times Staff Writers

Tourists were allowed to begin returning to Catalina Island on Sunday afternoon, just three days after a raging brush fire neared its port city of Avalon and forced an evacuation.

As of 4 p.m., ferry boats from San Pedro and Long Beach were cleared to resume carrying tourists to the island, 22 miles off the Southern California coast, officials said. Visitors will be restricted to the town of Avalon while firefighters continue to fight the blaze in the island’s interior, about five to 10 miles from town.

“It will take a short time for us to get up and running, but we’re going to do everything we can to make sure our visitors have a great experience,” said Pam Albers, the city attorney who was doing double duty as a fire-related public information officer.


As of Sunday evening, fire officials said the fire had burned about 4,750 acres and was 73% contained.

Reopening the town can’t come soon enough for business owners who rely on the warm weather to fatten their tills.

“We need to get back to normal,” said Sherry Abdelnour, a waitress on the island for 18 years. “We need our tourists back.”

Power was slowly being restored to the island, although officials said it could be two weeks before things were back to normal at Two Harbors, a popular snorkeling and scuba-diving spot.

Main Street, normally choked with people in Hawaiian shirts and children clutching ice cream cones, was mostly empty except for the dirty, disheveled firefighters making their way along the fire lines. More than 640 were on hand to fight the fire.

Some businesses opened, but with no customers to serve, closed again.

Meanwhile, in the hills farther above town, helicopters were still making air drops of water on isolated patches of fire.

Some firefighters expressed astonishment at the dryness of the brush surrounding the town, which made the fire so dangerous. Such brittleness would normally be seen in August or September, not early spring, they said.

National Forest Service firefighter John Boehm said this was his first island fire. “The trip out here was quite an experience,” he said, referring to the bumpy Hovercraft ride. But once on the island, he settled in.

“Fire is fire,” he said.

But those fighting the Catalina fire may long remember this blaze -- and not just because it was a life-or-death struggle against the elements.

Tired they may be, after three days of battling the inferno that at one point loomed ominously over the resort town of Avalon and its picturesque harbor. But with the blaze now well in hand, some firefighters christened it with a new name -- the Ten-Pound fire.

That’s how much weight the firefighters jokingly said they’ve gained, thanks to the generosity of island merchants. Instead of their usual spartan fare while manning the fire lines, they feasted on tri-tip steak Saturday night.

Still, even as the firefighters got a little relaxation, the narrowness of the resort island’s escape from catastrophe was written into the hills framing the town as the sun rose Sunday morning. They were an ashy, dusky gray. Burned evergreens drooped lifelessly, and the thick carpet of cactus and scrub that once covered the hillsides was charred to blackened stalks.

One home was lost in the fire, along with six out-buildings back in the brush.

Fire officials were still searching for a cause of the blaze, although they were focusing on construction work underway at an inland radio tower.

An indication of the firefighters’ growing confidence was the fact that officials had curtailed the 12-hour shifts they had been working since the fire broke out Thursday. They were also preparing to ship equipment back to the mainland from Two Harbors, a more rustic visitor center west of Avalon.


Times staff writer Scott Glover contributed to this report.