LAFD History – The Bel Air Fire – 56 Years ago November 6, 1961

October 31, 2017

Frank’s note: If you have been reading my November Grapevine articles for the past years, you know I write something about the Bel Air Fire and add some of my personal experiences. Those of you who have been on the LAFD for 30 plus years have had many memorable experiences both good and bad. Most of us remember those incidents that had a significant impact on us. This one is certainly one of mine.

Sunday, Nov. 6, 1961, was hot and windy in Los Angeles. The notorious Santa Ana winds were blowing, and the cold that most of the country was feeling was notably absent in the “City of Angels.” At Fire Station 92 on Pico Boulevard, four bells noted the arrival of a teletype from headquarters, noting the day would be considered a “high hazard” day in the Santa Monica Mountains. In the Santa Monica Mountains on the morning of November sixth, the Santana winds were ranging between 25 and 50 miles per hour with even stronger gusts. Relative humidity had dropped to four percent. A fire Danger Index employed by the U.S. Forest Service which integrates wind velocity, temperature, and relative humidity with a measurement of vegetation moisture indicated an extreme 98 on a scale that ranges from zero to one hundred.

At 8:15 a.m., the Van Nuys Signal Office received a telephone call from a construction crew about “burning brush” at the northern end of Stone Canyon on the Sherman Oaks side of Mulholland Drive. Within a few minutes, additional calls came into the West Los Angeles and Westlake Signal Offices. As the first fire companies left quarters and headed up toward Stone Canyon, the Van Nuys Signal Office received a radio report of “a significant loom-up.” Within minutes, the first battalion chief had arrived on scene. The fire was already cresting the top of Stone Canyon and moving west at great, wind-driven speeds.

At 0830 a “major emergency” was declared. The fire had by now overrun the upper Stone Canyon reservoir and was moving uncontrolled into the expensive community of Bel Air. Incoming companies were deployed along Chalon, Chantilly, and Roscomare Road, several of the more populated streets within the Bel Air community. Within five hours, the entire A Platoon of the LAFD had been recalled to duty (it was a B Platoon day). The wind was gusting up to 100 mph in the midst of the blaze, while the Santa Ana winds were averaging 65 mph. The fire moved southeast from Mulholland Drive, moved down Stradella, and then whipped its way down Roscomare Road. The fire front had not arrived, but the 65 mph winds were carrying burning brands for miles, and as they landed on the then- common wood shake roofs of the 1950s-era homes, they ignited.

Chief Henry Sawyer, division commander of the Mountain Patrol, knew it was vital to get a good overview of the massive blaze. The LAFD had ordered its first helicopter, but it had not yet arrived. Undaunted, the chief requested the use of a local news helicopter and flew above the fire – the first use of a helicopter as a command observation platform.

Within a few hours, the flames jumped Sepulveda Boulevard and the newly constructed San Diego Freeway. The fire spread to Brentwood and down Kenter Avenue, extending into Mandeville Canyon and through the Santa Monica Mountains.

In the early hours of Nov. 7, all off-duty Los Angeles City firemen were recalled. The LA County Fire Department provided six engines, six camp crews, and provided additional resources to staff empty City stations, as did many other surrounding fire agencies. 250 National Guard soldiers were put into action to support the LAPD, as looting became a concern. The city put into effect the recently passed “State Disaster Law” that permitted on-the-spot arrest of any unauthorized person in a disaster zone. The massive evacuation that took place was the largest in the city’s history. 300 police officers helped guide 3,500 residents out of Bel Air.

By the middle of the day on Nov. 7th, 2,500 firefighters were battling the blaze and were finally making progress. By 3 p.m. the winds began to die down. Occasional bursts of wind blew hotspots upslope back toward Mulholland Drive. With bulldozers, backfires, and borate drops, firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Not until the morning of Nov. 8 did they reach containment.

On Nov. 6, 1961, I was a two-year fireman working at Fire Station 92 on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles. We had a beautiful 1958 Seagrave engine, Shop No. 60013, at the time. It was already warm that morning, with a Santa Ana wind blowing from the northeast – one of those days when you knew you were going to have some action. We were about to have our 8 a.m. lineup at the front of the apparatus floor when we looked up and saw the huge loom-up coming from the Santa Monica Mountains right in front of us. We didn’t wait for the dispatch as Capt. Jack Skinner told us to suit up and respond. Engineer Gene “Hoppy” Hopkins started the rig as Vince Cortazzo, Bill Stephens, and I jumped on the tailboard for one of the most
memorable shifts we ever had on the Department. Fireman Jack Holman would respond and join up with us later. This was the day of the Bel Air fire.

As we approached the fire we encountered flames blowing horizontally across the road in front of us. The rig stopped and we watched from the tailboard as Skinner and Hopkins (both experienced veterans of the LAFD) discussed a plan. The plan was to drive through the fire, which we did. When we got out the other side, our hose had dozens of small smoldering burn holes from the embers and the leg of my dungaree pants was on fire. The fire was moving very fast when we met the chief on the ridge, and it seemed like night as the sun was covered by heavy black smoke. We were told to try to get ahead of the fire and protect the structures, the majority of which had wood shingle roofs and were burning blocks at a time. Many of the streets had no water so we used our tank and a few times our axe and hayward to pull burning shingles from the roofs that had just ignited. While we were on one roof, we – and even the rig in the street – were hit with a borate drop from a low flying air tanker. I still have my old helmet with some borate in it. We traveled from block to block and house to house using the “hit and run” technique, saving many homes from total destruction. One of the houses we tried to save was located at Roscomare and Anzio. The wood shingle roof was well involved and the fire was in the attic. Each of use took a line to protect exposures and I went in with a line to work on the attic fire. After several minutes in the attic crawl hole, engineer Hopkins came in and told me to get out because the roof was about to collapse. We both ran for the front door when the roof came down. We had made it to the entry way and a large chandelier came crashing down between us. I still thank Hoppy’s spirit today for coming to get me. That evening we wound up somewhere in Brentwood putting out roof fires and structures after the burning embers had landed west and south of the Sepulveda pass.

LAFD History Bel Air Revisited

Some 40 years later, after an article in the Times written about the fire by Cecilia Rasmussen, I received a call from a man who lived in the house Engine 92 was trying to save on Roscomare. He saw a picture in the article of Engine 92 in front of the house (I was inside in the attic with a hose line). The man who called was Rob Barry and he invited me to meet his family and to see the house 45 years later. I took him up on the offer and with great anticipation drove up Roscomare to the house. It was amazing! For one thing – we saved more of the house than I thought. Rob’s father had the house rebuilt with minor modifications and it looked much the same as it must have before the fire hit it. Rob’s brother John and mother were there, she was 91 years old when I visited. The boys were both in grade school on the day of the fire. They all had unbelievable stories to tell of what they went through.

Today the LAFD Historical Society (LAFDHS) has the original Engine 92, the 1958 Seagrave that engineer Hopkins drove to the fire. I took Hopkins to see his old rig, and he told me that when he was moving the rig at the fire by himself that day, a hot power line fell on the front of the rig. He knew not to get out and he needed to relocate fast, so he drove through the wire as it arced and sparked. He showed me the crease on the front of the rig that is still there today as a mark of the battle. Two of our LAFDHS volunteers, retired engineers Mark Howell and Tim Griffin, have been working on the rig for many months making repairs, installing new and rebuilt parts, painting and polishing to get it in running condition.

Conclusions

As a result of the Bel Air Disaster, the City of Los Angeles was able to initiate a series of fire safety policies and several laws, including the outlawing of wood shake/shingle roofs. The Brush Clearance program was initiated and today, the City of Los Angeles has one of the most stringent policies designed to create defensible space around homes.

Most importantly, the disaster that was November 6, 1961 could occur again. A wind-driven wildfire is unique when it comes to firefighting. It is a co-conspirator with the weather and fuel, and is difficult to predict relative to direction, speed, and intensity. Only with continuing cooperation of homeowners, following the law with regard to brush clearance, defensible space overall, and understanding the concept of Ready, Set, Go – to evacuate when a disaster strikes, can the tragedy of the Bel Air fire be avoided in the future.

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