Los Angeles punished by raging brush fire
—L.A.P.D. photo by Secor
—L.A.F.D. photo by Secor
High winds fan fire into giant beacon, attracting spectators from miles around with resulting traffic jam
HOLLYWOOD’S worst brush fire since the disastrous Laurel Canyon blaze of two years ago, destroyed eight homes and damaged nine more in a fierce, windswept nightmare on May 12. Observers who watched the blaze sweep wildly into the tinder-dry hills and canyons were amazed that the fire did not destroy more homes in the heavily populated area. More than 1,200 acres of valuable watershed were burned over before containment was achieved late the following day.
The fire was reported at 7:43 p.m. at the rear of 3009 Beachwood Avenue in the Beachwood Canyon area just below the south slopes of the Hollywood Hills. Witnesses state it started when a high-tension wire snapped in the high winds, but L. A. City fire officials declined to list an official cause. The weather was hot and dry, with winds prevailing from west to northeast, varying from 15 to 35 miles an hour. Streets in the area are narrow and winding and many homes are built on the sides of hills.
On receipt of the telephone alarm, the central signal office at Westlake dispatched three engines, one truck, a squad and Battalion 5 Commander John Dick. First-in Engine 82 radioed for a second alarm at 7:47 and three additional engines. Division 2 responded, followed two minutes later by the Mountain Patrol’s 1,000-gallon all-wheel-drive Tank Patrol 1. Chief Dick was in a distant corner of the battalion near Beverly Hills, but by the time he drew close to the scene of the fire he realized the severity of the blaze. “I heard Engine 82 radio for assistance,” he recalled, “and as we drew closer I could see the clouds of smoke.” At 7:59 he called for declaration of a major emergency condition, alerting the entire Los Angeles Fire Department for action.
As additional apparatus was ordered to the area, one of the biggest traffic jams in memory took place in the Hollywood area. Streets in this section are normally congested with Friday evening traffic and the blaze, visible for miles around, attracted sight-seers from everywhere. Many of the units responding after the initial alarms were delayed by the jams.
“I heard Engine 29, moving up to Engine 82’s quarters on Bronson just below the fire area, report they couldn’t get into the station because of the jam on the street,” said Chief Dick.
“The Hollywood Freeway was like a parking lot an hour after the fire started when I arrived in the area,” recalled Assistant Chief Henry Sawyer, the department’s mountain fire fighting expert. Extra details of police and reserves were called for, and eventually some 200 peace officers were on duty clearing the area of traffic.
Incidents of bravery
Chief Dick observed many incidents of bravery by the firemen: “Our companies were faced with serious complications,” he explained. “One rig could block one of those narrow roads completely if it stopped to work on a burning house. Then no other apparatus could get by. In several instances company commanders by-passed burning homes to take houses farther up the sheet and left the roads open.
“We laid tap-ins off our bigger lines and tried to have at least one man at every house. I saw men driven back by showers of flames and then they would rush in with a hose line to douse the roof and walls. Our men never did a better job!”
Mobilization was now in high gear —by 8:49 p.m., 23 engines, five tanks, plus additional apparatus were already on the scene. Field commanders, observing the spread and dangerous potential of the blaze, requested assistance from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The County responded at once and at 8:51 p.m., dispatched Engines 82, 74, 68 and 66 to report to City Station 82—all rigs were watershed companies.
Before the fire was contained, close to 500 men were on the lines. There were 41 L. A. Fire Department engines, plus 14 from Los Angeles County, 38 city tankers, eight miscellaneous units, two aerial trucks, one squad, one communication truck and two County camp crews. Twenty civil defense pumpers were dispatched, but none actually were used on the fire.
Chief Engineer William Miller and Administrative Deputy Don Hibbard were in command of the fire and several of the chief officers, including Chief Miller observed the fire from helicopters loaned by radio and TV stations.
“We normally don’t think of the helicopter as being useful at night,” said Chief Miller, “but it was so clear and so bright from the flames, our observation was very useful.”
TV Station KTIA, incidentally, gave superb coverage of the fire from its “telecopter.”
The fire was kept from crossing the ridge to the San Fernando Valley side of the mountains, but for a time did threaten the Civil Defense Control Center on Mt. Lee. Two shacks were destroyed at the center. The fire burned north and west and also furiously north and east through Bronson and Western Avenue Canyons and into Griffith Park. One hundred and forty-six girls from a Girl Scout camp in Bronson Canyon were evacuated.
The fire licked around the Griffith Park Observatory and for a time threatened both the Greek Theatre and the famous bird sanctuary. There was a chance the fire could burn to the Griffith Park Zoo area, but despite some alarming press reports, the zoo was never in critical danger.
“We were fortunate in keeping the fire out of the exclusive Oaks area between Bronson and Western Canyons and out of the beautiful Fern Dell area of Griffith Park,” said Chief Sawyer. “We had an old burn near Fern Dell and I put a bulldozer to work cutting a break and this saved the area.”
A command post was established at the observatory and Chief Sawyer reported that accurate wind-measuring instruments there recorded blasts of wind up to 67 miles per hour.
After containment, two stubborn spots on the steep slopes of Mt. Lee eluded control. At the L. A. Fire Department’s request, two U. S. Forest Service TBM air tankers from Chino were dispatched Saturday and after two passes each, the line was tied in —the aerial tankers being credited fully for this successful mopping-up operation.
Chief Sawyer was high in praise of the use of aerial equipment in this rugged area. Sawyer and other chiefs believe that the intensive watershed training which has been given all Los Angeles firemen in recent years aided immeasurably in preventing greater losses, particularly in the furious early stages of the fire.