Beth Oelkers paced her kitchen floor on Thursday night as a fire burned hundreds of miles away. She was probably feeling much the same way as hundreds of other Scottsdale parents whose children were on school trips at California’s Santa Catalina Island, where a large wildfire was forcing the evacuation of thousands.
“It will probably be a pretty sleepless night for most of us,” said Oelkers, whose sixth-grade daughter Kaitlyn was still, as far as she knew, on the island late Thursday.
Last Oelkers had heard, her daughter’s group of more than 100 students from Desert Canyon Middle School were safe on the opposite side of the island, though little information was getting back to her in Scottsdale.
Desert Canyon as well as a group of nearly 100 eighth-graders from Scottsdale’s Cheyenne Traditional School were visiting the Catalina Island Marine Institute, a popular science camp with three locations on the island.
Cheyenne’s principal Mike Duff said the students from his school had been evacuated and were headed home early. The fire, which burned near the island’s largest city of Avalon, was making its way toward their camp.
“The place did a great job of getting them out,” Duff said. “They were hoping they’d be able to return (to the island), but when they found out it was getting closer to the marine institute, they couldn’t return.”
The students from both schools were scheduled back today, and Scottsdale Unified School District officials said they still expect that to happen.
But as parents in Arizona were being reassured, island officials were evacuating hilltop homes toward the beach area as the wind-driven fire threatened Avalon, according to Los Angeles County fire Capt. Ron Haralson. Other evacuations were under way as the fire moved southeast through brush.
The blaze erupted about 12:30 p.m. five miles east of the island’s Airport in the Sky. It was fanned by winds moving at 15 mph and gusts of up to 20 mph, Haralson said.
“That’s not good — not when it’s dry and the terrain is hard to access by ground,” Haralson said.
One county firefighter was overcome by smoke and hospitalized in stable condition.
More than 100 firefighters, aided by four water-dropping helicopters, were battling the blaze. Three air tankers swooped low over ridges and canyons to drop lines of orange fire retardant ahead of the flames.
Back in Scottsdale, Oelkers said her daughter and the others will return today with a great story.
“Probably the kids there are having a great time not knowing what their parents are going through,” she said. “They’re probably playing cards and Scrabble and whatnot while we’re pacing the floor.”
The Associated Press and ABC 15 contributed to this story.