LAFD History – The Bel Air Fire

October 31, 2018

Each year when November comes around I think of 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. Now with California in a major drought, the wildland fire season has already been very destructive, setting records in acreage and structures destroyed… – Frank Borden, LAFD Retired

Summary

During the week of November 6, 1961, the City of Los Angeles was visited by the most disastrous brush fire in the history of Southern California. Lashing out from a point of origin high on the north slope of the Santa Monica Mountains, the fire raced through tinder-dry vegetation to the summit, leaped across Mulholland Drive and raged down the south slope into Stone Canyon on a rapidly widening front. Driven savagely before fifty-mile-per-hour winds, the flames sped on south and westward. Thermal air currents, created by the intense heat, coupled with the high velocity winds swirled countless thousands of burning brands aloft to deposit them far in advance of the main fire front. Natural and manmade barriers were utterly incapable of interrupting the progress of the fire. Before the wild rush of this roaring destruction was finally subdued, 6,090 acres of valuable watershed had been consumed. Infinitely more tragic was the incineration of 484 costly residences and 21 other buildings.

Later, when the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire had reached an apex of violence, a third fire erupted just south of Mulholland Drive near Topanga Canyon. This is approximately seven miles to the west of the Stone Canyon area. This fire immediately demanded the attentions of the already overtaxed forces working on the Bel Air-Brentwood conflagration.

Concurrently with these fires, twelve other major emergencies occurred within the metropolitan portions of the city. Unprecedented demands were made upon the resources of the fire department.

Frank’s story: On November 6, 1961, I was a two-year fireman working at FS 92. We had a beautiful 1958 Seagrave engine, shop #60013 at the time. It was already warm that morning with a Santa Ana wind blowing from the north east. We were about to have our 8 a.m. lineup at the front of the apparatus floor when we looked up through the opening apparatus floor doors 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 Captain Jack Skinner told us to suit up and respond. Engineer Gene “Hoppy” Hopkins started the rig as Vince Cortazzo, Jack Holman, Bill Stephens, and I jumped on the tailboard for one of the most memorable shifts we ever had. This was the day of the Bel Air fire. As we approached the fire we encountered the fire blowing horizontally across the road in front of us. The rig stopped as we watched from the tailboard Capt. Skinner and Engineer Hopkins (both experienced veterans of the LAFD) discussing 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 my dungaree pants leg 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 sending burning wood shingles into the air and transported by winds up to 50 miles per hour far ahead of the main fire. 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 on one of the roofs Vince Cortazzo and I were hit with a full borate drop. I left some of the borate residue in my black helmet as a reminder. We traveled from block to block and house to house using the “hit and run” technique saving many homes from total destruction. We were effective because of our experienced Captain and Engineer and a great crew of firemen that never gave up.

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 ablaze. I advanced a one and a half inch line into the home, and was in the attic on a ladder from the house. 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 quickly made our way through the hallway to the outside, part 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 have always owed “Hoppy” a great debt of gratitude for getting me out of the house. On a sad note, Engineer “Hoppy” Hopkins who retired as a Captain II passed away in his 90’s and still playing golf. He had led a long and rewarding life and made a positive impact on so many fellow firefighters as a mentor and teacher.

That evening we wound up somewhere in Brentwood south of Sunset Blvd. putting out roof fires and structures after the burning embers had landed west of the Sepulveda pass. I certainly had my baptism by fire on that day and night. It was an experience burned into my memory.

The LAFD Historical Society has the original “Engine 92”, Shop # 60013. It’s the 1958 Seagrave that “Hoppy” drove to and operated at the fire. The rig is now in our “shop” being restored with a little engine work and some polish. It still has the original paint. Retired Engineers Mark Howell and Tim Griffin have been working on it and soon you will see it in running condition with a plan to have it on display.

The LAFDHS also has one of our first LAFD helicopters (a Bell 47) under restoration by volunteer Jeff Moir, retired LAFD helicopter pilot. He is doing an awesome job of restoration, even got the engine running. This is the same type of copter that was used for aerial observation at the fire.

On Saturdays during the month of November we will be playing the LAFD movie about the Bel Air Fire “Design for Disaster” at our Hollywood Museums.

Bill Stephens and I are the only members of Engine 92 that day here to tell our stories. Rest in Peace Captain Jack Skinner, Engineer “Hoppy” Hopkins, Fireman Vince Cortazzo, Fireman Jack Holman.

Submitted by Frank Borden

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