Thursday, May 10, 2007

Smoke on the Water

Something is burning, baby—are you aware?
—Bob Dylan, Knocked Out Loaded

After a parched winter in arid Southern California, we’re bracing ourselves as fire season starts early.

Already this week hillsides have opened up in flames in Yorba Linda and Griffith Park. Above was the view last night from my balcony looking north as flames licked around the hills north of Dodger Stadium—easily twenty miles away, but looking closer as the night sky drew down around the rising billows of smoke.

Driving home on the freeway tonight I caught glimpses of what looked like a huge fog bank south of the mainland. Streaks of smoke marked the sky, not clean white clouds but brown spraypaint smears. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that big puff of fog looked like the smoke rising off a brushfire, but there’s nothing out over the water to burn.

Nothing, that is, but Catalina Island.

I went out to the beach road to have a look, and even from 26 miles across the water the view was breathtaking. On the TV news tonight, and on Websites like, even more dramatic close-ups showed the fire looming over Avalon (try this for frequent updates, until another story takes over the mantle of “breaking news”).

So far this week I’ve had fires to my north, my east, and unbelievably my south, out across the water. The sunsets with all that soot in the air are incredible. But it looks as if I’d better get in my rides early this year out on Palos Verdes Peninsula, because that’s about the only spot west of here where a brushfire could start—and this is only May.

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.

Everybody’s hoping the fire won’t reach the houses on the outskirts of town. Nobody wants to think what will happen if the first row of houses lights up.

Midnight update: Latest report is 4,000 acres have burned, and evacuees are storming shelters set up by the Red Cross in Long Beach and San Pedro, but firefighters say they’ve saved most of the major building areas in Avalon . . . so far.

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