Residents Return To Southern California Island But Life Far From Normal After Wildfire - - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - |

Residents Return To Southern California Island But Life Far From Normal After Wildfire

AVALON, Calif. (AP) _ Residents have started returning to this picturesque town off the Southern California coast after firefighters and favorable weather halted a wildfire's advance into Catalina Island's most populated area.

Nearly 4,000 evacuated residents began heading back to inspect their homes and apartments and reopen businesses that largely cater to tourists.

``I thought it would be a melted ball of plastic,'' said Jim Gilligan, who reached his workplace, Dave Zeller Construction, on a golf cart. He was pleasantly surprised to find the building still standing _ especially with charred ground 30 feet from the door.

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.''

Elsewhere, smoke from a mammoth wildfire in the Southeast closed sections of two major highways Saturday morning.

The Catalina blaze started Thursday afternoon and burned about 4,200 acres _ about 6 of the island's 76 squares miles. Containment was estimated at 35 percent.

Avalon Fire Chief Steven Hoefs said the cause of the fire remained under investigation but it appeared to have started as contractors worked on antennas at a radio station in the island's interior.

Only one home and six industrial businesses burned and no one was seriously injured.

Environmentalists said it was too early to tell how the Catalina blaze affected the island's ecosystem, home to rare animal and plant life, including the Catalina Island fox.

But four bald eagle chicks that hatched earlier this year without human help were unharmed, said Bob Rhein, a spokesman for the Catalina Island Conservancy, which owns most of the island. The birds are a milestone in the reintroduction of the species, which was wiped out on the island decades ago by chemical contamination.

Across the country, firefighters battled a wildfire in Georgia and northern Florida that had burned 212,000 acres _ or more than 330 square miles _ since lightning ignited it a week ago.

Near the fire, Florida officials closed a 35-mile stretch of Interstate 75 from the Georgia-Florida state line to Lake City, Fla., as well as a 40-mile stretch of I-10 Saturday morning. Georgia authorities closed the southbound lanes of I-75 for about 15 miles from Valdosta, Ga., to the state line because of the smoke.

``It's smoke and fog right now, but the fire is not far,'' said Bill Hamilton of the joint fire information center.

Several accidents have occurred on the two highways and that area roads are at near-zero visibility, emergency management officials said. A multi-car accident occurred on the interchange between the two highways northwest of Lake City, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman said. It was unclear if there were any injuries.

The fire, which started in the middle of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, took just six days to grow larger than a separate wildfire that has burned 124,000 acres of Georgia forest and swampland in more than three weeks.

In Georgia, the fire posed a potential threat to the town of Fargo, where 380 people live about eight miles west of the Okefenokee Swamp. Occupants of about 15 homes were urged to leave as a precaution because of the smoke and ash.

Residents evacuated late Thursday from about 600 homes in northern Columbia County, Fla., were still unable to return home Saturday morning, said Jim Harrell, of the Florida Division of Forestry.

To the north, some evacuation orders were lifted in northeastern Minnesota, where a wilderness wildfire had blackened about 85 square miles of forest. However, an evacuation order was expanded across the border in Canada because of concerns about shifting wind, said Ministry of Natural Resources spokeswoman Leona Tarini.

Dozens of houses and cabins have been burned, and about 300 people had checked in at an evacuation center.

Fire crews hoped to take advantage of a break in the weather Saturday, with lighter wind and a 40 percent change of rain on Sunday.
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