Brush Fires Sear Southern California
Phenomenal winds aggravate dry conditions and put mutual aid to severe test at close of 1958
FIRE FIGHTING agencies throughout Southern California worked together in some of the finest examples of cooperation in the history of the state’s fire service as major brush fires in tinder-dry canyon areas threatened to burn out of control as the year 1958 drew to its close. It was the climax to one of the driest seasons in the area—Los Angeles registered only .57 inch of rain from July 1, 1958 through New Year’s. Added to the dryness was a heavy dose of the “Santana” or Devil Winds* blowing at speeds from 25 to 60 miles per hour, a probable arsonist loose in the Santa Monica Mountains, and just plain carelessness.
More than 100,000 acres of valuable watershed land were destroyed, one forest ranger killed, eight Los Angeles County firemen hospitalized with burns, more than 100 structures destroyed and a chief’s car and three pieces of fire apparatus damaged or destroyed, in the fires which raged after November 28. At the height of the New Year’s Eve fires in the Los Angeles area, men and equipment from nearly 50 different fire departments were in action.
Warner Ranch fire
The first of the series of major fires included in this narrative broke out at 2:21 p.m., November 28, on the Warner Brothers Movie Ranch near Calabasas in the Santa Monica Mountains at the western end of the San Fernando Valley. Six Los Angeles County engines, seven patrols, one tractor and two camp crews responded to the initial alarm.
Pushed by the high winds, the fire moved rapidly and it was feared the blaze might run to the populated area at the ocean near Malibu. Sixty-one engine companies from L. A. County, the California Division of Forestry and the U. S. Forest Service brought the fire under control after it had burned 4,040 acres, with no major structural damage.
However, L. A. County’s problems were just beginning. At 10:35 a.m., December 2, a phone alarm from the 20th Century-Fox Movie Ranch House reported a fire near Las Virgines Road and Trycross, just west and slightly north of the previous Warners Ranch blaze. Because high winds increased the hazard, Engines 67, 65, 265, 70, 71, 72, 75, two camp crews, six patrols and a tractor, plus Battalion 5, Chief Frank Zalaha, and Division III, Assistant Chief Harvey Anderson, responded on the first alarm.
*The Santana wind, sometimes called “Santa Ana,” is peculiar to Southern California areas. It is caused by the build-up of an intense high pressure area over California’s interior deserts. When the barometer falls over the ocean, the winds rush through mountain passes in swirling gusts which can reach or exceed 100 mph.
At 10:48, a radio report to Battalion 5 headquarters reported “fire at two acres—may get away.” Seven minutes later Chief Anderson asked for a helicopter and five more rigs. Engines 82, 382, 66, 50, 7, plus five patrols responded. There had been several smaller fires in the vicinity which were quickly controlled by city and county units, but officials believed that an arsonist was operating in the general area of the west San Fernando Valley.
Liberty Canyon fire
At 11:24 a.m., on December 2, a second fire started at Ventura Boulevard and Liberty Canyon in Agoura to the north and east of the Fox Ranch blaze. Engines 245, 209, 17, 25, six L. A. City and three Ventura County pumpers responded. At 11:24 the initial water drop by U. S. Forest Service tanker planes was made on the first fire and by 12:28 p.m., County First Assistant Chief Roland Percey radioed a request for “21 engines and five tractors.” Ten came from L. A. City, four U. S. F. S. and six from Ventura County. Aerial bombers using borate were successful in some areas inaccessible to ground units.
A field report at 12:32 indicated the two fires would burn together near Malibu Lake which they subsequently did. At 12:37, lines connecting the County’s Castro Peak transmitter and the Battalion 5 dispatching and control center were burned out, hampering radio communication. Also destroyed were miles of County fire telephone lines (it cost $20,000 to repair these facilities). Relay stations were set up to aid transmission of messages.
The fire was now racing west toward the old Malibu bum of 1956 into parts of Latigo and Corral Canyons, eventually crossing the Pacific Coast Highway and threatening homes along Old Malibu Road in Malibu. Massing of apparatus in this area saved the homes, but the fourlane divided highway was impassable at times because of wind-swept flames billowing across the road. Residents were evacuated from the area and military personnel from the Army and Marine Corps moved in along with forestry crews and equipment.
At 4:27 p.m., Battalion Chief Parsons reported that County Engines 13 and 58 had been swept by fire in upper Corral Canyon and there were eight injuries.
The two engines and their crews were enveloped by fire from all sides. Several of the men were badly burned from the flames, while others received steam burns. They had wet themselves down and were under their rig when the steam apparently penetrated their turnouts. Engine 13 was completely destroyed and damage to Engine 58, a late-model triple combination, was reported at $15,000.
Two County helicopters were ordered to the scene. The two most seriously burned firemen were flown directly to a heliport atop Santa Monica Hospital. Two other seriously burned men were flown to Malibu Emergency Hospital and the remaining four were taken out by ambulance. It was another demonstration of the successful use of helicopters to remove injured personnel from semi-remote areas with speed to insure maximum treatment. All the men will recover.
During the battle, the wind stirred up the Warner fire and equipment had to be diverted there. Ventura County also had a fire near Santa Susana and six Ventura engines had to be sent back. Nine cities including Santa Monica, Culver City, Montebello, Monterey Park, Monrovia, Pasadena, Azusa, Compton, and Vernon moved their equipment into empty County stations. At each station a County fireman was left behind to work with the mutual aid unit.
Noteworthy on this fire was the use of three military S58 helicopters from the Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps, to ferry personnel. The aircraft ferried men in from a heliport near the Paramount Ranch fire camp in a few minutes. It was estimated that they would have had to walk two and a half hours in and out.
Southern California Edison Co. sent in six insulator washing trucks to protect their poles and one of the rigs was credited with helping to save a house in the Malibu sector. Edison has been using this type of equipment since 1956 on various brush fires. The rigs carry up to 750 gallons of water and can deliver a high pressure stream up to 800 psi from a hydraulically elevated platform.
L. A. County F. D. photo
—Southern California Edison photo
L. A. County F. D. photo
The Liberty fire was controlled Saturday, December 6, with 42 structures destroyed and 17,860 acres in a perimeter of 20 miles burned over. Thirty-six L. A. County engines, eight L. A. City, 10 California Division of Forestry, eight Ventura County, seven OCD, five U. S. F. S., one high pressure unit from Port Hueneme Naval Fire Department, 1,878 men and auxiliary units, including 23 patrols, 18 bulldozers, two PBV tanker planes and three TBM tankers were employed.
—L. A. City F. D. photo
There were a number of minor fires throughout Southern California after the Liberty fire, but one of the West’s largest fires in area of any year broke out in the Cleveland National Forest west of Elsinor on Sunday, December 14, at approximately 1:45 p.m.
It eventually blackened 66,300 acres in the counties of Orange, Riverside and San Diego.
The 100-square-mile blaze destroyed 19 buildings and killed one fire fighter, Joe Adams, a ranger from Prescott National Forest in Arizona.
The fire was reported under control at 8:00 p.m., December 20. It was started by Jerry Stewart on his father’s ranch seven miles southwest of Lake Elsinore, when he fired a tracer bullet into dried grass while target shooting.
Total manpower was 2,768, with 76 pumpers and 51 bulldozers. Cleveland National Forest units were under the command of Stanley Stevenson, Cleveland Forest Supervisor, and California Division of Forestry units were under Deputy State Forester James Mace.
Eight helicopters, including four from the Marine Corps Air Facility in Santa Ana, were used to ferry personnel. Twelve aircraft were used from the U. S. F. S. and the C. D. F. Seven fire camps were set up. A California Disaster Office communications truck was located at Cariso Guard Station.
Worst still to come
At 9:30 a.m., Wednesday, December 31, Captain Ralph Smith of County Engine 68 along with Patrol 68 and 69, was at the Topanga Canyon summit looking north toward the San Fernando Valley. “We had so many mysterious fires starting,” said Smith, “that we thought it might be a good idea to get up high where we could see things. We spotted this fire near Canoga Avenue and Mulholland, east of Topanga in the City and radioed the alarm as we responded ourselves. By the time we got there, the fire swept by us into the canyon.”
With swift winds blowing, Engines 69, 65, 265 and 75 joined the other units, plus Patrol 269, two bulldozers and four camp crews. L. A. City received an alarm at 4241 Canoga Avenue at 9:40 and rolled Engines 84 and 72, Tractor 1 and Mountain Patrol Tank 2. At 9:50 County Assistant Chief Harvey Anderson requested five more companies and five minutes later, five additional. Responding were County Engines 7, 209, 25, 22, 245, 73, 373, 382, 81, plus five patrols.
Racing into Topanga, the flames menaced homes in several residential areas and an army of sheriff’s deputies and California Highway patrolmen started ordering residents out of their homes. Several thousand eventually were evacuated. The fire rushed on toward the Fernwood Pacifico tract, burned into Tuna Canyon, Big Rock Canyon, eventually hitting and crossing the Pacific Coast Highway south of Malibu proper.
Extensive mutual aid
Again the County’s major fire plan went into effect, with Chief Keith Klinger taking field command and Deputy Chief John Duncan taking charge of headquarters. From 100 miles away, mutual aid units began moving in.
Five Kern County Fire Department units under personal command of Chief Elmo Freear arrived and from Ventura County, Chief Bill Haggard led five companies, plus two Ventura OCD units to cover empty County stations Additional equipment came from L. A. City (the fire actually started in the city and was burning in city-county initial action zone), Santa Barbara City, Santa Barbara County, Montecito Fire District, Santa Monica and Glendale In addition, there were 15 OCD rigs and units from Point Mugue and Port Hueneme Naval Bases, Oxnard Air Force Base, the U. S. Forest Service and the California Division of Forestry.
—L. A. County F. D. photo
As in the Liberty fire, engine companies from cooperating municipal fire departments moved into County stations to cover. Sixteen first-line County reserve companies were activated and manned by a limited recall of manpower and equipment in the shops was rushed out.
In total, there were 118 engine companies, 35 of them the County’s; 1,722 men; 18 bulldozers; three helicopters; 16 patrols; four food dispensers; four TBM and two PBY tanker planes; one fourengined PB4Y “Privateer” tanker; one “bird dog” plane; one chemical unit; two mother tankers and two gas dispensers.
The fire was controlled late Friday, January 1, with 59 structures totally destroyed, six partially burned, with 4,980 acres burned and an estimated $1,250,000 in watershed damage. County Engine 69 had its cab burned off, while the Battalion 11 sedan was destroyed.
An ironic twist was that Engineer Fred Howse of County Engine 7 was fighting the fire in the area, while his own home in Tuna Canyon was totally destroyed. His family escaped without injury.
San Diego gets a scare
A four-alarm canyon blaze on December 30 within the City of San Diego narrowly missed being a conflagration. The fire broke out in San Clemente Canyon in North Clairmont and threatened hundreds of new, costly homes along the 12-mile fringe of canyons.
Fast work by 100 San Diego fire fighters, aided by volunteers and neighborhood householders who manned garden hoses and helped firemen advance lines, prevented a disaster. The fire damaged the interior of one garage, destroyed a 19-foot cabin cruiser and some patio furniture. Many structures were blistered by the flames which roared up canyon walls.
The blaze, which burned over a 25city-block area, was caused by a 12-yearold boy who lit a packet of matches. At 11:50 a.m., lire headquarters received a still alarm for Constitution and Jamestown Streets, and Engine 27 was dispatched. A box alarm was received almost simultaneously. A second alarm was struck at 11:56 a.m., a third at 12:12 p.m., and the fourth at 12:39 p.m. Twelve engine companies and one ladder company under Chief George Courser fought the fire, aided by tankers and utility rigs from other city departments. Olf-shift firemen responded on call to man reserve units and aid in fighting the fire. Extensive relocating of other company units was necessitated to protect far-flung exposed areas.
The fire was under control by 1:30 p.m., but watch lines were maintained most of the night. No one was seriously injured.
It is interesting to note that this was the second four-alarm fire in the city’s history. The first, for a 12-acre canyon fire, was on September 14, 1956. The city’s sole five-alarm blaze was also for a canyon blaze on September 27, 1957, in which two homes were burned and nine damaged.
L. A. City punished
The Beverly Glen-Benedict Canyon fire was the greatest fire emergency in the history of Los Angeles and brought forth the biggest concentration of fire equipment ever recorded by the L. A. Fire Department. This blaze started in heavily populated and wooded Beverly Glen Canyon at 10362 Tupelo Lane at 3:42 p.m. on December 31. L. A. City had approximately 22 units deployed at the Topanga fire at the time. At 3:48 p.m., Engines 42 and 58 and Battalion 9 were dispatched, followed three minutes later by two 400-gallon booster tanks, 78 and 37. Within the next hour five more engines were dispatched at various intervals. Investigation later discovered a seven-year-old boy playing with matches as the cause.
The story of what occurred in the field is best told by Don Hibbard, administrative deputy chief and acting chief engineer. “I was returning from the Topanga fire when 1 heard the alarm. When I arrived the fire was burning slowly up the east side of the canyon toward a fire road. I called for a helicopter to size up the fire. 1 could see that if we could obtain aerial tankers for immediate water bombing, we could stop the advance easily. Not having a fire radio in the helicopter, we landed and I radioed for the tankers. It took approximately 30 minutes for the tankers, which were operating at Topanga, to get in. Unfortunately, about 20 minutes later, the wind swept up and the fire started over the road toward Benedict Canyon.”
To further complicate matters, at approximately 4:30 p.m., the L. A. Fire Department was operating on three major fires—Topanga, Beverly Glen and a second alarm at 810 Santa Fe Avenue in the industrial district. Some 48 units were committed at this time.
Chief Hibbard flew over tire fire again at nightfall and saw it spreading on a quarter to half-mile front. At 5:30 p.m. he declared the fire a major emergency and additional equipment started moving in to back up the numerous rigs already on the line. Acting Deputy Chief Art Fowler was contacted at the Topanga fire and immediately responded with six rigs which had just completed their assignment there.
At the height of the Topanga fire, the Los Angeles Fire Department had 20 empty firehouses and at the peak of the Beverly Glen-Benedict blaze, the number jumped to 43—nearly half the total stations.
Eleven of these stations were filled between 7:42 and 11 p.m. by mutual aid companies from Huntington Bark, Pasadena, Burbank (two), Long Beach (two), Alhambra, South Gate, Downey, Whittier and Lynwood—this in addition to the units previously noted filling empty County stations. A Los Angeles fireman was left in each house as guide.
As the night wore on, it became obvious that additional outside assistance was needed. Six OCD units were obtained from the Topanga fire and 1 1 L. A. City two-piece companies were split, one rig being sent to the fire and the other manned by salvage and truck personnel remaining in the station. Through L. A. City and County Civil Defense, Harold Bowhay, chief of California’s Disaster Office fire service, obtained equipment from Santa Barbara City, Montecito, Carpenteria and Orange and Ventura County. Some of the Santa Barbara and Montecito apparatus had just returned from duty at Topanga.
In the field, Chief Engineer William Miller returned from vacation to take charge. Shifting winds had blown the fire easterly across Benedict and in a swirl westerly back across Beverly Glen, where one expensive home was lost.
The County was asked for 10 companies. Somehow Chief Duncan managed to break loose five fresh County companies despite the heavy commitment at Topanga. He remembered an earlier offer of assistance from Chief Jay Benner of Torrance, head of CD Fire Area “G” in the South Bay area. Chief Benner assembled five units from El Segundo, Torrance, Gardena, Redondo, and Hawthorne, and sent them to the fire. Also, the City of Beverly Hills which lies just below the eastern flank sent two companies. Total number of units at the fire was approximately 97, 77 of which came from L. A. City. There were 12 homes damaged, only one totally, with 471 acres lost.
Continued on page 229
CALIFORNIA BRUSH FIRES
Continued from page 191
During the peak of the fire all dispatching of equipment by fire alarm telegraph was stopped since so many stations were empty. Equipment was dispatched by telephone.
The fire finally was stopped on the eastern flank at San Ysidro Road, a new and expensive residential area north of Beverly Hills, where a virtual army of apparatus was massed.
Fire fighting in the Beverly Glen, Benedict and San Ysidro Canyon area was helped by good water supply. L. A. Water & Power said 4,857,000 more gallons of water were used from 4:00 p.m., December 31, to 4:00 p.m., January 1, than in the previous period. □□