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Residents of California island return as wildfire is under control

Published May 13, 2007


AVALON, Calif. - Cooler weather aided firefighters Saturday as they battled to surround a 4, 200-acre wildfire in the rugged, unpopulated interior of Santa Catalina Island while the resort's main town returned to life as the blaze's threat eased.

The fire was about two-thirds contained and was expected to be encircled by Tuesday evening, Los Angeles County fire Capt. Andrew Olvera said. One home and six businesses burned Thursday but no one had been seriously injured.

Nearly 4, 000 evacuated residents had started returning to the island, where damage was estimated at $2.1-million.

"We have a sense of duty to the town to bring it back to normal, " delicatessen owner Rick Miller said as he unloaded supplies from his van. "People get hungry, and it doesn't hurt to see businesses open and calm restored."

Tourists were barred from Catalina Island until at least Monday - past the Mother's Day weekend that had been expected to jump-start the summer season.

An average of 1-million tourists a year pump $96-million annually into the economy of the island about 20 miles off the Southern California coast, a vacation paradise with snorkeling, scuba diving, golf and hiking in an ecologically diverse terrain.

Wayne Griffin, president and CEO of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce, estimated that the ban on visitors would cost Avalon, the island's only significant town, a half-million dollars in just a few days.

"Until some of these things stabilize, we're probably not a good place for visitors, " he said. "It's a small price to pay when you consider what we saved."

Fog and highs only in the 60s diminished the threat of the fire spreading. It was isolated in the back country of the 76-square-mile island, more than 20 miles off the Southern California coast.

The fire appeared to have been ignited by contractors working on antennas at a radio station in the island's interior, Avalon fire Chief Steven Hoefs said.

Bill Agresta, chief engineer at station KBRT-AM, said three contractors had been cutting steel antenna cable with a gas-powered circular saw Thursday when the fire ignited.

Agresta said he saw a small blaze and ran inside the station to call 911. By the time he returned, it had moved several hundred feet downhill and engulfed the contractors' tool truck.

[Last modified May 13, 2007, 00:47:07]

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