Firefighters working through the night turned back flames threatening homes on the edge of Santa Catalina Island's main city, and Friday's forecast coupled with a massing force of fire trucks and water-dropping aircraft offered hope that the popular oceanside resort would be spared.
The 4,000-acre fire (roughly six square miles) was only 10 percent contained as helicopters returned to the air at dawn over this narrow, mountainous island more than 20 miles off Los Angeles.
But the flames that menaced the city and forced some 3,800 people to evacuate Thursday night were no longer visible from Avalon. A puff of smoke rose from a hillside overlooking the crescent harbor and a layer of ash were reminders of a harrowing night.
"The risk has been reduced significantly," Avalon Fire Chief Steven Hoefs said. "Most of the structures have been protected."
One home and a few small structures in the canyons outside the city burned, Hoefs said. About 1,200 homes were under voluntary or
mandatory evacuation orders.
Friday's forecast promised better firefighting conditions. Winds
that reached 20 mph Thursday were expected to calm to 10 mph Friday
and were blowing the fire westward, away from Avalon and toward the island's sparsely populated center.
Five water-dropping helicopters and five retardant-dropping air tankers were expected to be up by late morning.
Residents and visitors fled the island Thursday night, with hundreds lining up at its harbor to board ferries back to the mainland. Many covered their faces with towels and bandanas as, in the words of one evacuee, ash fell "like snow."
As some boats left, others arrived to ferry more people away.
"It's like a war zone. The skies turned completely gray with orange streaks. The helicopters were flying all over the place," evacuee Anita Bussing said after arriving at the Port of Long Beach.
"People were freaking out, children were crying," said Bussing, who has a second home on the island.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters approximately 3,800 people were evacuated.
Dozens of fire engines from Los Angeles County and as far away as Fresno came through the night aboard giant military hovercraft from the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton. The high-speed hovercraft can carry 60 tons over land or water and are often used by the military on humanitarian missions.
Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters flew in firefighters 32 at a time, and 500 firefighters were expected on the island by afternoon.
The fire spread quickly Thursday, feeding on dry brush as winds blew steadily into the night.
An ominous orange glow loomed behind the quaint harbor, landmark 1929 Catalina Casino and homes, restaurants and tiny hotels clinging to slopes above the waterfront.
Hand crews staked out at the city's edge to protect homes.
Along with the home, four outbuildings and two storage sheds were destroyed, authorities said. One county firefighter was overcome by smoke and hospitalized in stable condition.
Catalina has been left parched by the lack of rainfall that has made the rest of Southern California easy prey for wildfires like the one that gave Los Angeles a scare this week at Griffith Park.
The island covers 76 square miles and is served by helicopters and ferry boats from Los Angeles, Long Beach and other mainland harbors. Avalon has a permanent population of about 3,500 that swells to more than 10,000 on weekends and in summer, according to the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.
Most the island is owned by a land conservancy and is home to a varied wildlife that includes the Catalina Island fox, North American bison and bald eagle, four of which hatched in the wild last year after being wiped out decades ago by chemical contamination. Those hatchlings were safe, according to Bob Rhein, spokesman for the Catalina Island Conservancy.
There are few cars in Avalon - most people walk or ride on golf carts.
The blaze erupted Thursday afternoon in the island's rugged interior, five miles east of its Airport in the Sky.
In Avalon, authorities used a bullhorn to urge people to evacuate and head to the beach. Visitors were directed to the historic art deco Casino until it lost power. Resident evacuees were sent to another harbor site.
The Catalina Express ferry service added several night departures of 400-passenger vessels.
One family of eight said they had just enough time to pack some clothes and personal papers before fleeing.
"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 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.
"It was like a nightmare when we left," she said. "You couldn't breathe and ash was falling like snow."
An evacuation center was set up at Cabrillo High School, where about 100 people had checked in, according to the Red Cross.
Around midnight conditions had improved on the island, as the marine layer calmed winds and moistened the air.
Associated Press Writers Daisy Nguyen and Christina Almeida in
Los Angeles and Gillian Flaccus in Long Beach contributed to this
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)