Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#234: Draining the Dive Park to Save Avalon

The events of the past few days have left an indelible impression on all of us island residents who were here between Thursday afternoon and the end of the weekend. We all have memories of the events associated with the incredible fire that nearly took our homes in "the island valley of Avalon." When I was first ordered to evacuate my home, I had to quickly decide what to take with me. Was I smart enough to grab my passport and important documents? No. Smoke inhalation had already dulled my mind (even worse than it already was). What did I take? My two underwater cameras (especially since the expensive one hasn't been paid for yet), one of my two underwater housings, copies of all six of my DVD's, my laptop computer, my high school yearbook (why I ask now?) and some clothes to pad the camera equipment. I drove down and parked in front of Antonio's Cabaret to watch the incredible wall of flames approaching our town. At least twice I was sure my house (and a number of others) had been consumed by the dark orange flames. I went to sleep that night assuming my condo was lost... but for some strange reason slept like a baby.

The next morning I awoke to learn the house was still standing and I had something to return to. Like all of us, I was surprised and so very thankful. I returned home and tried to respond to more than 200 e-mail, PM and phone messages from friends and divers I didn't even know asking if I was okay and whether I needed a place to stay on the mainland. It eventually took 10 1/2 hours to reply to everyone. In the middle of doing so, the second evacuation order came. I had been watching a flare up close to my home that had been extinguished once by a helicopter water drop, but quickly revived with even more force. It eventually took a dozen fire fighters and many water drops from two helicopters to extinguish. Once again I jumped into my golf cart and left my hill. This time I decided to drive down to Avalon's dive park. We live on an island, which means we're surrounded by water... and I'm a SCUBA diver so I assumed if fire and brimstone approached, I could just duck under the water.

It was here that I discovered an interesting component to the fire fighting procedures that saved all of us. The water dropping helicopters that put out the flare up near my house (as well as so many others in Avalon Canyon) had been using water from the dive park! Initially I wondered why with so many other places to choose, and decided it was probably because they assumed there would no small boats entering the park. Obviously the pilots had never dived the park since this does happen on occasion! The helicopters slowly lowered their huge orange buckets, tipped them to fill them with salt water, and then flew off to drop it on the flames.

Watching this made me think of an "urban legend" known not only to divers, but many landlubbers as well. The story goes that a SuperScooper type aircraft picked up a SCUBA diver while filling the plane's water tanks, and dropped him in full SCUBA gear into the forest where the fire was raging. He was supposedly found a few days later dead in a tree. I have been assured that this is indeed just a legend and there is no truth to the story. However, I was glad I was not diving in the park that day... and I was equally glad the helicopters were taking its water to keep us safe.

When I was able to return to my home, I got on the Internet to report to the SCUBA boards I'm a member of what was going on. There were a number of threads expressing concern for the safety of the town, and asking if I was OK. Despite the seriousness of their concern (and mine!), I decided to have a little fun and humor them. I wrote a post that I sent out to several of the boards informing the divers that the fire fighters were quickly draining the water in the dive park to save Dr. Bill's house (along with a "few hundred others" in town). Now I assumed that the readers would realize that withdrawing a bucket, even a huge bucket like those carried aloft by the helicopters, would barely make a dent in the Pacific Ocean. Any water removed from the park would quickly be replaced as the ocean sought its new level, just a few silly nanometers lower. One diver e-mailed me back and expressed concern. She was planning to bring a few friends out to the dive park when they allowed visitors back to the island. She wanted to know if the water level would rise enough for them to dive by the time they arrived. Now, I'm not sure if she was teasing me back or not... but I think she is a true blonde, which may answer that question!

I wanted island residents to know that there were many divers from SoCal and elsewhere in the world who were quite concerned about the fire and our safety. They all love the island, and the great diving here. Several of them plan to organize a large group of SoCal divers to come out in mid-June to inject some money into our local economy by staying in our hotels, eating at our restaurants, and diving off both dive boats here. After several days without many visitors, I hope we all have a renewed appreciation for their impact on our occasionally fragile island economy. They and other visitors are our lifeblood. Let's all greet those who come, divers or landlubbers, with a smile and welcome them back to help "save the economy" just as we bent over backwards to make the firefighters and other service personnel know how grateful we were that they came and saved our homes and our town.

With the fires nearly under control as I write, my mind now fast forwards to next winter. Well, not too fast since I want to enjoy summertime as long as possible! Hopefully the rains will be slow and gentle when the season starts. We don't want the island to experience a lot of erosion after these burns. That would diminish the soil's ability to sustain new plant growth. It should be exciting to hike in the burn areas (on designated paths of course) to see what interesting plants follow the fire and colonize the newly opened ground. This is part of the natural ecological process of disturbance and recovery.

I'll also be concerned about potential runoff and its effect on our marine environments. From a purely selfish standpoint, rapid runoff will increase sediment concentrations in the water and greatly reduce visibility... and my ability to bring back good footage to show you. Looking at it from a "big picture" perspective, increased sediments can be devastating to our wonderful giant kelp forests. Sand and silt particles may be abrasive to the highly sensitive young stages of kelp, causing many to die. Large quantities of silt can actually cover these tiny microscopic stages and smother them out. Should they grow successfully, the increased turbidity from the sediments can greatly reduce light available for them to photosynthesize and grow.

So there are linkages between the fire and the marine environment you might not have considered. The dive park's water (oh, and the rest of the Pacific Ocean it's "attached" to) helped save our homes. Good management of the burn areas topside can make a difference between success and failure of the kelp forests that draw many of our visitors to the island. Oh, by the way... I checked the dive park again today (Sunday). The water level was already back up to the stairs so our visiting divers should have great conditions when they return!

UPDATE: As of today (May 15th) the fire is 100% contained. It burned about 5,000 acres and involved nearly 800 firefighters and many other support personnel. The threat to Avalon ended Friday when the incredible efforts of local and other firefighters stopped what I thought might be certain destruction of a large part of our city. The fire still burned in many areas between Avalon and Echo Lake (near the Airport-in-the-Sky) including Toyon Canyon where I lived the first 10 years I was on the island. For those of you who have been to Toyon, apparently all the buildings of the old private school, now the Catalina Island Marine Institute, were spared thanks once again to incredible efforts by the firefighters.

The pictures below were taken Friday after the walls of flames (several fronts) entering lower Avalon Canyon were extinguished. Both of the lower pictures were taken from my deck and are of hot spots that flared up that afternoon but were put out. The one in the lower right is the flare up that threatened my house on the second day.

© 2007 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles," "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" or "Common Fish and Invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Sequence showing helicopter scooping up salt water from the dive park and dropping it near my house.
Thank you firefighters!!!

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2006 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia