Fires Threaten Catalina Island Homes

In the early evening, Catalina Island looked like a volcano in the Pacific as fire burned in the hills above the island's little city of Avalon, just off the California coast.

With flames blowing toward the main population center, officials called for a full evacuation of the 4,000 residents and an unknown number of visitors.

"It was a very frightening scene," said Lisa Bartly, a producer for KABC-TV in Los Angeles. "Heavy ash was falling from the sky. It was difficult to breathe. There were people rushing to the ferry landing. They couldn't breathe. There were people with face masks."

The fire burned mostly through brush during the day, but later, as aircraft dropped fire retardant over the town, people headed for the ferry that delivered them back to Long Beach on the mainland.

"You could see when it started creeping over the hills, the flames, you could see the flames coming down," said resident Kimberly Williams.

With many homes in the city tightly packed together, residents were worried about the blaze spreading quickly.

"Our town's only one square mile," said resident Marjorie Williams. "If the houses start catching on fire, I can't imagine it stopping."

Catalina has only a small fire department, so the Navy used Hovercraft based at Camp Pendleton to ferry as many as 100 more pieces of equipment and 400 firefighters.

One firefighter was injured, according to officials. Those residents and tourists who remained in town were on the streets, applauding the firefighters and thanking them for their help, KABC-TV's Bartly reported.

Catalina has been a popular playground and tourist destination, home of a famed casino and the Avalon Ballroom, which hangs over the bay.

"This is such a big tragedy, something that's going to be remembered for years," Bartly said.