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Residents returning after wildfires

Weather halts blaze's advance in Catalina Island

Rick Miller carried supplies inside his C.C. Beau Deli, as he prepared to reopen on the third day after a wildfire swept through Avalon on Santa Catalina Island yesterday. (Reed Saxon/associated press)

AVALON, Calif. -- Residents have started returning to this picturesque town off the Southern California coast after firefighters and favorable weather conditions halted a wildfire's advance into Catalina Island's most populated area.

The island remained quiet Friday as nearly 4,000 evacuated residents began heading back to inspect their homes and apartments and reopen businesses that largely cater to tourists.

"I thought it would be a melted ball of plastic," said Jim Gilligan, who reached his workplace, Dave Zeller Construction, on a golf cart. He was pleasantly surprised to find the building still standing -- especially with charred ground 30 feet from the door.

Visitors were still being told to stay away. An estimated 10,000 tourists take ferries from the mainland to the island each day to lounge on the beach, play golf, or take inland tours.

Elsewhere, smoke from a mammoth wildfire closed sections of two major highways yesterday morning.

About 50 miles away on the mainland, crews just days earlier beat back flames in Los Angeles' sprawling Griffith Park that singed a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes. That was the third menacing fire in the Hollywood Hills this spring, one of the driest rainy seasons on record.

Across the country, firefighters battled a wildfire in Georgia and northern Florida that had burned 179,940 acres, or 281 square miles, since lightning ignited it a week ago.

Near the fire, 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 yesterday morning.

"It's smoke and fog right now, but the fire is not far," said Bill Hamilton of the joint fire information center. He said he expected the road closure to be in effect for at least several hours.

Several accidents have occurred on the two highways and area roads are at near-zero visibility, emergency management officials said. A multi car accident occurred on the interchange between the two highways northwest of Lake City, a Florida Highway Patrol spokesman said. It was unclear if there were any injuries.

The fire, which started in the middle of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, took six days to grow larger than a separate wildfire that has burned 116,480 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 8 miles west of the Okefenokee Swamp. Occupants of about 15 homes in a subdivision 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 yesterday morning, said Jim Harrell, of the Florida Division of Forestry.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, the Missouri River neared its highest point in the state's capital city yesterday after a week of flooding towns upstream, but hydrologists said it wasn't nearly as bad as feared.

The river reached about 29 feet yesterday morning, some 6 feet above flood stage. That was high enough to flood stretches of the riverside Katy Trail hiking and biking route and some low-lying roads, plus nearly 1,400 acres of farmland.

However, it was short of the predicted 34-foot peak, which could have wiped out many farmers' crops for the year and inundated the Jefferson City Airport.

The Missouri and other waterways have breached or topped dozens of levees across the state since heavy rain during last weekend's widespread thunderstorms that also produced fatal tornadoes across the Plains states. No serious injuries or deaths had been reported in the flooding in Missouri, although Kansas and Oklahoma each reported one drowning.