Yikes!

“You can smell the pine wood burnin’
You can hear the school bell ring”

–Bob Dylan

California often has big fires–it’s a big state with lots of country that’s ripe for burning, so that’s no surprise. But some of them seem to hit closer to home for some reason. The most obvious example was the small fire that burned in the foothills above Palo Alto when I was growing up, threatening the homes of several friends, and taking the homes and outbuildings of some of their neighbors.

I didn’t grow up in Southern California, although I would spend a month there every summer, in a beach house with the whole family, not too far down the coast from where Brother #2 now lives. That means that when we looked out to sea, which we were constantly doing, we could easily see Catalina Island when the sky was clear, and most every night as the sun set behind it.

We didn’t get out to it too many times, although there was the time that our uncles took us out there in their second offshore raceboat. It was a Cigarette hull with an open passenger area down in the back, behind where they stood steering and navigating, as they did in the races that we would watch them run off of San Francisco and out of the Long Beach harbor. It was a windy and sometimes wet ride skipping across the ocean, but it is still one of the most exhilirating experiences of my life.

On our way back to the boat, after sliding down grassy hillsides on the sides of cardboard boxes, Mom took a magical picture of the group of us in silhouette, walking under overhanging eucalyptus trees that perfectly captured the feelings that linger with me from that day, although I was so young that I can’t remember the specific events of the day at all.

Perhaps it’s those memories, or all the time staring out to Catalina on the western verge of my childhood world that made the news, which I got first from Brother #2, about Catalina burning feel like a shot to my heart. The picture gallery, which shows harried parents arriving at shelters with children, strollers, diaper bags, suitcases, and so forth hanging from and dragging behind them made me feel all the worse about it.

This is enough of an emergency that Brother #2 reports

As I type here tonight, I hear the sound of choppers overhead, carrying firefighters and equipment out to the island. The Marines down at Camp Pendleton have activated a fleet of hovercraft to ferry out heavy trucks and firefighting equipment. Avalon is the only settlement on the island, about 3,200 people in about a square mile (640 acres), and from the TV news tonight it looked as if most of them were going to wait and watch. Some were evacuating on the Catalina Island ferries that normally shuttle residents and tourists back and forth from Avalon to San Pedro, to Long Beach, to Newport Beach. The ferries have announced they’ll be running all night. Each boat can carry 400 people.

I suppose that people go to Catalina for the day, which makes it a tourist destination, but I’ve never viewed it as a resort island, which is how the media keeps referring to it. Most of the island is untamed wilderness, complete with its own buffalo herd–imported from the mainland, of course. And perhaps it’s just because they’re frantically fleeing a fire that is threatening to burn them down into the sea, but looking at the evacuees, I have a hard time believing that they view it as a resort. I believe that they view it as home, which makes the news of the fire all the worse. A resort is a place that’s designed to be left behind, but we never expect to be forced from our homes.

As Brother #2 points out in his post, you can keep up-to-date on the fire through the LA Times site and blog, until other news overtakes it.

UPDATES from the LATimes blog as today dawned on Catalina: Air Support Is Back but “It Could Have Been a Lot Worse“.

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  • Some thoughts as the last of the hot spots get mopped up:

    I wouldn’t say Avalon dodged a bullet. I’d say Avalon had body armor that fortunately worked. From the start, when the fire was first spotted, a well-prepared plan was put into action to get hundreds of firefighters and tons of heavy equipment out to the island to fight the fire. The plan worked. It takes time to get the gear rolling, but it reached the island in time, and the fire was blunted and turned before it entered Avalon.

    I believe several dozen people ended up using the Long Beach shelter for a night. Hundreds of tourists (people staying on the island for an overnight or for as long as a week) did come back to the mainland, but they weren’t refugees, in the sense that they were already planning to spend the night away from home. Hundreds of firefighters went over to Catalina; the facilities that would normally be used to cater to tourists are being used this weekend to house and feed firefighters.

    And, by the way, these hundreds of firefighters by next week will probably be off in an anonymous canyon somewhere breaking their backs in the hot sun fighting a fire somewhere less glamorous. The axes and shovels are just as heavy both places. They get a lot of gratitude when they come to Malibu or Avalon, but they earn that same gratitude even when what they’re protecting isn’t a waterfront playground. Keep them in mind too on days when fire isn’t on the front pages.

    It looks as if Avalon’s economy will recover pretty quickly. Property damage was limited; tourists will return. They’ll lose Mother’s Day, but they’ve got the rest of the summer. About 10% of the island has burned, which leaves open the question of what tourists will come for, but the town is still there with its restaurants, hotels, and gift shops, and 90% of the island is still intact for campers and hikers. For now, it appears the Isthmus area–where we played on cardboard boxes–has lost utilities like electricity and telephone service, but those will be restored. Just about everything that boaters do at Catalina should remain viable.

    Wilderness recovery will be a hot issue. Already in Griffith Park, last week’s other high-profile fireground, there’s an argument over letting native species take their time to reclaim the hillsides vs. planting something quickly to limit erosion in case Southern California has a rainy winter. Houses sit below these hillsides; the issue is not moot. Most of Catalina is controlled by the Catalina Conservancy, which has done its best in recent decades to restore something like an indigenous balance to the back country, removing imported goats and, yes, bison. (Are eucalyptus trees native in California?) We’ll see what choices they make for the charred acres.

    The level of seriousness is maybe best marked by a couple who were planning to get married on the island today. About half their wedding party was already there when the gate was closed and no more non-residents were allowed to travel over on the ferry. They had to decide whether the wedding would go on, and how. The situation never got so dire that the island wedding was completely off the list. The pastor was available, between driving support to fire crews, and the church was intact. But for this weekend, with travel dodgy and hotel rooms filled with firefighters, they decided it would be possible to do it in Avalon but too much of a strain. I think they ended up moving it back to the mainland, but the point is that they still seriously considered doing it today in Avalon.

    All’s well that ends well, and aside from some displacement of deer and people for the duration of the blaze, I think Catalina did O.K. Nobody died, and most buildings are still standing. A heavy layer of cool wet overcast has moved in and helped the people trying to protect property.

    I’m sure the future will bring plenty of chances to take 3B sliding on cardboard boxes at the Isthmus. The only difference between that and your youth will be the number of digital copies of the moment that are available for immediate distribution.

  • If the Catalina Conservancy has been doing the good job I think it has, those burned areas will spring right back up with life, from native plants that rejuvenate via fire.

    I distinctly remember the last wildfire that burned in Malibu near Pepperdine (OK, the last Malibu wildfire that I was there for)…that area didn’t stay black for long.

    I have very fond memories of my one visit to Catalina, courtesy of Papa Hunt back when we were courtin’. We stayed at the Zane Gray hotel at the top of the hill overlooking the Casino. We just poked around like all the other tourists, and never made into the island interior on that short weekend.