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Catalina Fire Forces Evacuations, Fears for Wildlife

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The massive wildfire sweeping across Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California, is still burning. But cool weather has given firefighters the upper hand, and some of the nearly 4,000 people who evacuated are about to head home.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: The residents of Catalina Island, especially those in the tourist town of Avalon, feel like they've dodged a bullet. The weather is cooperating and some 500 firefighters and tons of equipment from the mainland have arrived to beat back the flames. Los Angeles County fire captain Andrew Olvera is feeling optimistic.

Mr. ANDREW OLVERA (Fire Captain, Los Angeles County Fire Department): We definitely don't want to let our guard down because of the weather but we do want to get in there and be effective while we have this chance.

KAHN: Last night, it was a much more dire situation. The flames were surrounding the western side of Avalon - hundreds of the tiny towns year-round residents scrambled down to the dock to board one of many ferries waiting to take evacuees on the 23-mile ride over to Los Angeles.

Residents Sergio(ph) and Claudia Barrejo(ph) didn't have a lot of time to choose what to take, however, Barrejo managed to pull his wife's treasured picture of the pope off the wall and cover it in bubblewrap.

Mr. SERGIO BARREJO (Resident, Catalina Island): It is a picture of the pope.

KAHN: Which pope?

Mr. BARREJO: The second one.

KAHN: John Paul?

Mr. BARREJO: The last that died. Yeah, John Paul. Yeah.

KAHN: And you wrapped it up while you're evacuating?

Mr. BARREJO: Yeah. Yeah. It's a gift, you know, it's more important for my wife.

KAHN: Most residents filled suitcases and plastic bags. Wendy Hernandez(ph) was upset that there weren't more firefighters on the scene last night.

Ms. WENDY HERNANDEZ (Resident, Catalina Island): It's taking so long for people to get over here to help, to clear out the fire, that it's getting so out of control. We don't have a good enough plan in place for an emergency like this. I mean, you know, they're having to bring trucks over from the mainland and they just came over a couple of hours ago, and it's been on fire for all day.

KAHN: Fire Captain Olvera says officials did have a plan. They helicoptered in fire crews as soon as the first flames were seen around noon yesterday. But many residents still weren't satisfied.

Mr. OLVERA: They may have been frustrated that they didn't see the firefighters but we had many firefighters coming over in helicopters, not coming through the actual harbor. Firefighters were coming from all over.

KAHN: Most significant to the battle were the firefighters who came over on the Navy's hovercraft.

(Soundbite of hovercraft)

KAHN: All through the day, the hovercraft made runs from Camp Pendleton outside San Diego to the island. Once on the beach, the craft's big black rubber tubing deflated. Five fresh fire engines filled with crews headed down a metal ramp onto the sand and out to the fire.

Corporal Stephen Holt from Camp Pendleton says now it's time to inflate the bottom tubing and head back across the ocean.

Corporal STEPHEN HOLT (Marine Combat Engineer, Camp Pendleton): There are pumps that are married to that thing and away it's going to go.

KAHN: Just like riding a giant innertube across the ocean.

Cpl. HOLT: It is. In fact, actually being on the craft it feels like your more on an airplane than an actual boat. Just be at the dynamics of the ship and everything, the sounds, the way it rides and everything that is - it's once a lifetime experience that's for sure.

KAHN: Resident Susie Griffin who runs the historic Inn on Mount Ada says she hopes she never has to experience this again.

Ms. SUSIE GRIFFIN (Innkeeper, Inn on Mount Ada; Resident, Catalina Island): It's amazing when you look at the blackened hills how close the fire came down to our school and our hospital. And some of my friends' backyards almost but those buildings were spared, and then again you always hear about fires in the hotspots afterwards, and I can sure see it today because you think you're okay and all of a sudden a flame - smoke goes up and now I can see live fire again.

KAHN: Resident Janet Demarest(ph) trying to keep positive.

Ms. JANET DEMAREST (Resident, Catalina Island): I'm much better now, now that we have daylight, and if you look down at the city it just looks like a beautiful day.

(Soundbite of motorboat)

KAHN: With scorched mountains behind it.

Ms. DEMAREST: Yeah. Scorched mountains.

KAHN: With just a fraction of the fire contained, residents and firefighters aren't taking any chances. Water-dropping aircraft and hand crews will work through the day and hope the weather stays cool and the wind still.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Catalina Island.

NORRIS: There's information about Catalina Island's plant and animal species at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.