Each year when November comes around I recall two significant events for me on the LAFD. My appointment to the Department on November 7, 1959 and the Bel Air Fire on November 6, 1961. This year with California in a major drought, the wildland fire season has already been very destructive. – Frank Borden, LAFD Retired
Sunday, November the 6th, 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.” Although the winds slowed overnight, as dawn approached on Monday the 6th, it appeared that the week would be another one of heat, winds, and low humidity. I had reported to work at Fire Station 92 as part of the B-Platoon and was preparing for the morning lineup when four bells noted the arrival of a teletype from headquarters, stating the day would be considered a “high hazard” day in the Santa Monica mountains.
At 8:15AM, 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 B/C had arrived on scene. The fire was already cresting the top of Stone Canyon and moving west at great, wind-driven speeds.
In Fire Station 92, our morning lineup was underway. We were being updated by our Captain Jack Skinner. In those days, lineup was a fairly formal affair, and the crew was literally lined up in front of the apparatus facing the street. As the apparatus doors were opened, Captain Jack Skinner, was facing us, and unable to see what we saw – a dark billowing cloud of smoke filling the sky. After a moment of disbelief we told Captain Skinner to turn around to see the impressive sight and although not yet dispatched, we grabbed our gear and responded to the fire. We knew this was the “big one” and we were all very excited and ready to face the challenge.
By this time, the first command post had been established on Mulholland Drive above Stone Canyon. Additional units were requested, including Engine 92. It was now nearly 8:30 AM, and a “major emergency” was declared. The fire had 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.
Engine 92 was moving east on Mulholland towards Roscomare when the road in front of us appeared to be overrun with smoke and fire. Captain Skinner, knowing that there was little time, spoke to Engineer Hopkins and turned around and yelled back to us on the tailboard above the roar of the 1958 Seagrave Triple Combination Engine, “Okay, boys, duck your heads and close your eyes! We’re going through the fire!” Engineer, “Hoppy” Hopkins, engaged the clutch and upshifted. The rig accelerated and bore down on the curtain of fire and smoke. Seconds later, the large open cockpit fire engine emerged on the other side of the flaming front, unscathed. The only evidence the crew had just driven through a wall of flames was dozens of small burning embers lying on the hose bed. Or so we thought. Everyone was feeling really good at the near miss and busy patting out the bits of smoldering hose in the bed in front of the tailboard we were riding. But the smell of burning didn’t stop. I smelled a different odor and then noticed that my dungaree pants leg was on fire . . . literally. This was before Nomex-based turnouts when firemen wore blue cotton dungarees. As the engine careened through the twisty roads, I reached down and patted the fire out, “rather vigorously,” as I remember.
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 65mph. The fire moved southeast from Mulholland Drive, moved down Stradella and then whipped its way down Roscomare Road.
Engine 92 was positioned on Roscomare, and I, along with my crew and several other firemen were working to save several homes. The fire front had not arrived, but the 65mph 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. Homes were burning from the roof down. It was difficult to see as the sky was blotted out. Brands and sparks filled the air, along with smoke, making it very difficult to breath. And worst of all, water pressure was dropping, making it nearly impossible to properly fight the blaze. In some cases, firemen shoveled dirt onto burning garages and roofs, attempting to stop the advance of the fire. Vince Cortazzo and I were on one wood shingle roof with a pick head axe and a pry bar pulling burning shingles off. That’s when we got hit with a big borate drop from a four engine air tanker. I still have flecks of borate in my old black helmet from that day. Luckily we were able to stay on the roof and completed our job.
Engine 92 was at the corner of Roscomare and Anzio Road. A beautiful home with a wood shake roof that had just “taken off.” The roof was well involved. I advanced an inch and a half line into the home, and was in the attic on a ladder, attempting to save the interior of the home. Engineer Hopkins, who was out with the rig, noticed the roof was starting to weaken and rushed inside, telling me to get out. As we made our way through the hallway to the outside, most of the roof collapsed into the structure. A big chandelier fell right between us. It was a close call, but only one of many that we and other firemen would face throughout the day and night. I really owe a lot to Hoppy for getting me out of the house before the roof came down.
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.
Flames reached the 14th tee of the exclusive Bel Air Country Club, and dotted the landscape throughout Bel Air. 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.
Engine 92 continued to work on structure protection. We used a “hit and run” tactic designed to maximize the process of saving structures that could be saved. We moved throughout Bel Air, eventually ending up in Brentwood, dousing wood shingle roof after wood shingle roof. It was repetitive and exhausting. The wood shake shingles may have been pretty, but it was clear they were contributing to the destruction of homes.
In the early hours of November 7th, all off-duty LA City firemen were recalled. The LA County Fire Department provided six engines, six camp crews, and provided additional resources to staff empty LA City stations, as did many other surrounding fire agencies. An additional 400 LA County firefighters stood by. 250 National Guard soldiers were put into action to support the LAPD, as looting became a concern. Several people were arrested and 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.
The northern boundary of the fire was Mulholland Drive. On the south it was about one-half mile above Sunset Boulevard. On the west, the flames were past Mandeville Canyon at one point and moving toward Sullivan Canyon. The eastern boundary reached to Beverly Glen and to the edge of Benedict Canyon.
By the middle of the day on November 7th, 2,500 firefighters were battling the blaze, and were finally making progress. By 3 p.m. the winds began to still. Occasional bursts of wind blew hotspots upslope back towards Mulholland Drive. With bulldozers, backfires, and Borate drops, firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Not until the morning of November 8 did they reach containment.
One of the keys to the overall firefight was 12 aerial tankers, some were converted WWII military aircraft, which were successful in stopping the advance on the perimeter of the fire by dropping fire retardant from the air. When the wind died on the afternoon of the 7th, firefighters knew the end was near. The efforts of those firefighters who battled to save homes should not be underestimated, however. A wind-driven wildfire is unlike any other, and “structure protection” is a dangerous and potentially deadly activity.
Nearly a dozen firefighters were injured, many from molten tar dripping from the roofs of blazing homes. Three LA firemen were admitted to UCLA Medical Center. Their injuries were not life threatening. Up to 100 other people suffered slight injuries, depending on which report you read and amazingly no one lost their life.
In Bel Air, 484 homes were destroyed. 190 others were damaged. 6,090 acres were burned. The cost of damage (in 1961 dollars) was in excess of $30 million. Yet, the incident was considered a success, as the LAFD saved 78% of the homes in the path of the fire. It’s a remarkable statement, given this fire took place before the implementation of ICS, helicopter firefighting, multiple radio frequencies and all of the other modern fire suppression tactics that exist today.
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 school on the day of the fire. They all had unbelievable stories to tell of what they went through.
The LAFD Historical Society owns old Engine 92, the 1958 Seagrave Triple that I rode on – thru the flames – during the 1961 Bel Air Fire. Engineer Hopkins who passed away at 92 will be with us in spirit when we drive up Roscomare someday in that beautiful 1958 Seagrave – Old Engine 92. Retired Engineers Mark Howell and Tim Griffin have worked on the restoration of Engine 92 for a few years and it looks almost better than new. We did have a 50 year reunion at FS 71 in Bel Air on November 6, 2011. It was pouring rain that day so we did not bring Old Engine 92, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of those who attended the event. Some of you remember open cab rigs in the rain.
To learn more about the Bel Air Fire, you can read the official LAFD report on the fire. You can also visit the LAFD Museum and Memorial in Hollywood, open every Saturday (except Sat. Nov. 28th this year). We will be showing the LAFD produced movie “Design for Disaster” every Saturday during the month of November at 11 am and 1 pm, so please come and visit.
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. You can visit the LAFD Brush Clearance website to learn more.
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 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.
With the drought conditions in California many huge fires have burned homes, brush and forests in the northern part of our state this summer. To give some perspective on the comparison of some of the largest historic fires in California I obtained some information from the internet on the most damaging fires by structure loss:
#1 – The Tunnel Fire (Oakland Hills Fire) (Alameda County) 1991, 1600 acres; 2.900 structures; 25 deaths. (This fire caused the state-wide implementation of the Incident Command System)
#2 – The Cedar Fire (San Diego County) 2003, 273,246 acres; 2,820 structures; 15 deaths.
# 3* – The Valley Fire (Lake County) as of Sept. 23, 2015, 76,067 acres (80% contained); 1,910 structures; 4 deaths.
#4 – The Witch Fire (San Diego County) 2007, 197,990 acres; 1,650 structures; 2 deaths
#5 – The Old Fire (San Bernardino County) 2003, 91,281 acres; 1,003 structures; 5 deaths
#6 – The Jones Fire (Shasta County) 1999, 26,200 acres, 954 structures; 6 deaths
#7 – The Paint Fire (Santa Barbara County) 1990, 4,900 acres; 641 structures; 1 death.
#8 – The Fountain Fire (Shasta County) 1992, 63,960 acres; 636 structures; 0 deaths
#9 – The Sayer Fire (Los Angeles) 2008, 11,262 acres; 604 structures; 0 deaths.
#10 – The City of Berkeley Fire (Alameda County) 1923, 130 acres; 584 structures; 0 deaths
#11 – The Harris Fire (San Diego County) 2007, 90,440 acres; 548 structures; 8 deaths.
#12 – The Bel Air Fire (Los Angeles) 1961, 6.090 acres; 484 structures; 0 deaths.
By Frank Borden