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Regional & National

Cooler weather helps firefighters in California; Southeast blaze still raging

May 12th, 2007 10:36 pm by Associated Press



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 a little less than halfway 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.


"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."


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.


"Conditions are definitely in our favor. The humidity is up, the wind and temperature are down," Olvera said.


In the island's interior, firefighters used chain saws and picks to clear fire breaks. In canyons northwest of Avalon, crews of prison inmates struggled up a steep slope to cut smoldering trees.


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.


The men unsuccessfully fought the fire with two hand-held extinguishers, he said.


Elsewhere, smoke from a mammoth wildfire in the Southeast closed sections of two major highways Saturday. Crews were still battling 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.


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 because of near-zero visibility from smoke. Georgia authorities closed the southbound lanes of I-75 for about 15 miles from Valdosta, Ga., to the state line.


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


Several accidents had occurred on the two highways, emergency management officials said.


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 had 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.


Near the Canadian border, 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 decreased wind Saturday, but higher wind was forecast Sunday with a 40 percent change of rain. AP-CS-05-12-07 1731EDT


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