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Firefighters Save Catalina Island Town

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Firefighters Save Catalina Island Town


Firefighters Save Catalina Island Town

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the pope in Brazil, but first, more than 4,200 acres have burned on the southern California island Catalina. Fire officials say they have more than a third of the fire contained and hoped to have it under control by early next week. The fire nearly burned down the island's main town, Avalon. But a determined crew of firefighters stood their ground and saved the city.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Catalina.

CARRIE KAHN: With the wildfire contained away from Avalon, officials lifted the mandatory evacuation order. Hundreds of residents are trickling back like Jesus Rodriguez(ph). Friday night, he stepped off the ferry at Avalon's dock and couldn't his eyes.

Mr. JESUS RODRIGUEZ (Resident, Catalina Island): I miss the silence so much. But now, I was not going to be able to see it again, you know. After 32 years living here, you know, I never see it before (unintelligible).

KAHN: Rodriguez fled Thursday as flames barreled down the hillsides, quickly surrounding the tiny town. Avalon's mayor, Robert Kennedy, says his city was lucky to have had hundreds of courageous firefighters come to the rescue.

Mayor ROBERT KENNEDY (Avalon): And I believe the toll is somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 personnel here on the island. To play between 12 hours of this wonderful rock we called home.

KAHN: There maybe hundreds battling the blaze now. But when the flames broke out Thursday around noon, it was Avalon's city fire department, all 11 of them, that responded to the call.

Avalon Fire Chief Steven Hoefs says firefighters thought they had beaten the blaze. But then the wind picked up and quickly overtook the small crew. Avalon's volunteer firefighters jumped in, 35 this time. Hoefs said little did he know that the 46-member crew would have to fight the fire alone for hours before help arrived from the mainland.

Mr. STEVEN HOEFS (Fire Chief, Avalon): We had air support mainly county fire department, five helicopter (unintelligible), one (unintelligible), four fixed wings. They shut down due to smoke and about 7:30, 8:00.

KAHN: It was, at least, two hours before the first trucks were brought over from Los Angeles.

Mr. HOEFS: Approximately (unintelligible) exact time. That is the hardest time we - yet the guys saying we need additional resources. We need more support and they're just getting overwhelmed and we're just, basically, looking at the fire coming in. We - there's nothing we could do.

KAHN: Luckily, the night cooled down, so did the winds and the Navy sent over its hovercraft with five engines and its crew. As the trucks rolled into town, the few remaining residents broke into applause. Throughout the night, engine companies came in. By daylight, it was apparent that the Avalon crew and their mainland reinforcements had saved the town. Only one home and six retail structures were lost.

Los Angeles County supervisor Don Knabe says, hat's off to everyone who's been stretched so thin between fighting the fire in Griffith Park earlier in the week, and then battling Catalina's blaze.

Mr. DON KNABE (Supervisor, Los Angeles County): A lot is going on here in Southern California, in Los Angeles County particularly in the last seven days. And the men and women of our public safety teams are true heroes.

KAHN: While residents are allowed back in town, officials are asking that tourists stay away for a few more days. Usually, on a beautiful Mother's Day weekend, tourists can swell Avalon's population of 3,200 to nearly 10,000. Warren Griffin, president of Catalina's Chamber of Commerce, says losses to businesses on the island could top half a million dollars.

Mr. WARREN GRIFFIN (President, Chamber of Commerce, Catalina): Small price to pay when you consider what we say it.

KAHN: If all goes well, the 700 firefighters on the island will mop up the fire by Tuesday, and Avalon and all of Catalina can get back to business.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Catalina.

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