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Their night of fear behind them, Avalon residents began returning home Friday to find charred hillsides and their quaint island town blanketed in a layer of white, powdery ash. The fire that had come within a few feet of engulfing shops and hillside homes on Santa Catalina Island had been beaten back after an all-out battle waged during the night. Only a single house and six commercial buildings were lost, thanks to the efforts of firefighters who beat back the flames from the air and ground. Mayor Robert Kennedy praised both Los Angeles County and military firefighters, whose s grew to about people over the course of 24 hours.
Weather forecasters predicted fair conditions with light winds in the coming days, good news for firefighters. Officials discouraged visitors from traveling to Avalon right away, pointing out that utility service had not been fully restored and that access to restaurants and hotels would be limited, with firefighters occupying many rooms. Elsewhere on the island, there were reports that the second-largest tourist center, Two Harbors, was without power or telephone service because the fire had disrupted power lines.
The apparent victory over fire was the second within days in Southern California, where a quarter of historic Griffith Park burned earlier in the week. This has been the driest year on record in Southern California -- a condition that has led fire officials to predict that more major fires lie ahead. The cause was still under investigation, although Steven Hofs, chief of the Avalon Fire Department, said contractors working on an inland radio tower may have inadvertently started the blaze. The Catalina fire posed greater logistical difficulties than the Griffith Park blaze, because it required moving firefighters and equipment across the water from the mainland.
At one point late Thursday, the flames were so close to neighborhoods that many evacuees assumed their homes had burned. Hundreds who had fled their homes or hotels returned Friday to find Avalon almost deserted, except for exhausted firefighters resting in the streets. Gallagher, an espresso bar and gallery, was open, but only to serve the firefighters who were bivouacked on the island. Owner Pamela Miller said she was coordinating with about half a dozen restaurants on the mainland to provide as much food as possible to the firefighters.
Although the danger to Avalon was much diminished, firefighters worked in the rugged terrain surrounding the town, cutting fire lines. The only home lost in the fire was a bungalow where Brad Wilson and his family lived.
This will put a hiccup in things. Still, there were people who did want to go to Catalina, no matter what happened the night before. Times staff writers J. Seema Mehta is a reporter who covered the campaign, the fourth presidential race she has written about for the Los Angeles Times. She started at the Times in and recently completed a Knight-Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan.
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