Rockets Start Rash of Fires Over Wide Area
One of the most freakish series of fires in the history of the West broke out in Northeast Los Angeles County on the afternoon of Thursday, August 16.
It was reminiscent of another series of blazes touched off by a blazing airplane from which 21 chaplains parachuted to safety in the same area last year (FIRE ENGINEERING, November, 1954).
Residents of a 50-square mile area suddenly found themselves under rocket bombardment with fires seemingly springing up everywhere.
—L. A. County F. D. photo
Miraculously no one was hurt as a total of 208 Tiny Tim 2.75-inch rockets from two Air Force F-89 Scorpion jet interceptors fell to the earth.
It all started shortly before noon when an electronically-controlled drone plane used in testing at the Navy Missile Test Center, Point Mugu, broke its “shackles” and went out of control. Normally the plane would fly seaward from the Pacific Coast base at Mugu, but instead it veered inland over Ventura and Kern County and Santa Susana Pass.
Meanwhile, the Navy informed the Air Force of the runaway and two interceptors from Oxnard Air Force Base scrambled to shoot the aircraft down over open country.
At 30,000 feet the jets found the old drone flying along near Castaic over the Old Ridge Route. The two highly trained Air Force crews were unable to hit the World War II propeller-driven Hellcat despite their barrage of rockets and finally it crashed in flames near Palmdale in the Antelope Valley, after running out of gas.
Three good-sized fires started, in addition to numerous blazes that were quickly extinguished and never reported to fire departments.
Before the afternoon was over, every available Los Angeles County fire company and United States Forest Service unit, plus mutual aid companies from Los Angeles City, Ventura and Kern Counties, and six fully-manned OCD triples, rushed into the area to control the Air Force’s folly.
The first alarm reached the L. A. County Soledad Control Center at Newhall at 1:11 p.m. as a brush fire seven miles north of Castiac, near the Old Ridge Route. Three county engines with patrols and U. S. Forest Service units moved in under command of Assistant Chief J. D. Barton, Division IV.
Because of the high fire hazard in the area, automatic third alarm calls had additional county companies rolling from Malibu, La Canada and West Hollywood. It was a good move, too, because at 1:25, as one dispatcher put it, “All hell really exploded!”
Calls started piling in, reporting that an oil refinery had exploded and that the highway was buckling and general chaos was taking place near Placerita Canyon and Highway 6 in the Newhall District, about 15 miles southeast of the original call.
At that time it was not known that the jets were causing the fires, but Deputy Chief John Duncan, in command of the big L. A. County department during Chief Keith Klinger’s absence on business, knew something unusual was taking place.
Equipment en route to the Castaic blaze was rolled directly to the Placerita scene, bringing 12 county engines, 6 OCD units, 4 patrols, 3 bulldozers, a 1200-gallon tanker, all the rookies from the Cecil R. Gehr Training Center aboard a modern training pumper, 200 men from 6 camp crews and 6 tankers from L. A. City.
Assistant Chief Harvey T. Anderson, Division III, took command as workers reported that rockets were falling among them while they ducked shrapnel.
The combined forces worked desperately to keep the flames from destroying the Newhall Refinery, oil installations and tanks in the area. Several sumps were set on fire. In its wild progress, the fire burned over 105 acres of land before the weary crews controlled it at 4:30 p.m.
Back at the Castaic blaze, the fire fighters were making gains anil that blaze, too. was stopped at the same time.
The third and largest fire was reported to the U. S. Forest Service at 3:05 p.m. near Mount Gleason in the Angeles National Forest. Defense installations are in this area as well as valuable watershed and recreational lands.
Burning in rugged terrain, the fire devoured more than 300 acres of heavy brush before it was controlled the next day.
The U. S. Forest Serv ice had 350 men. 1 tractors, 15 tankers and 2 helicopters, as well as 4 county engines and 1 patrol under Ranger Bill Dresser, in action.
Another small fire came within 1CM) cards of the Bermite Powder Co. plant in Saugus and city firemen controlled still another blaze near Chatsworth after a two-hour battle.
Numerous residences of Palmdale reported rockets exploding in the road as they drove and said shrapnel was bouncing qff radiators and fenders. Several rockets exploded near the Yucca ElementarySchool in Palmdale.
County officials protested to the Aii Force, pointing out it was difficult to understand why two modern jets with radar sights and carrying 208 rockets, couldn’t bring down an obsolete airplane.
Brig. General James W. Andrew, commanding the 27th Air Division, ordered a complete investigation of the fiasco, but as yet no report has been released.
Civil Defense officials pointed out that this type of disaster could easily occur in war emergency fire fighting. During the emergency, COD triples from South Gate, Whittier, Glendale, Arcadia, Inglewood, South Pasadena, and L. A. County were called to service.
L. A. County ordered a complete recall of all chief officers and reserve rigs were manned on a standby basis. The longest response w as County Engine 145 from Lakewood, a distance of approximately 75 miles.
Equipment from the Ventura County Fire Department moved in to cover L. A. County stations in the Malibu district. The county also dispatched additional equipment direct to the fires. Kern County also rolled a half dozen rigs for cover-up and standby use.