Los Angeles Fire Department
The Santa Monica Mountain Fire
November 23 to 30, 1938
REPORT OF MOUNTAIN FIRE
STATEMENTS FROM RECORDS
Being in receipt of many inquiries, the following data have been prepared and are offered as a record of operations of the Los Angeles Fire Department in the fighting and eventual control of the serious brush fire which denuded a large area in the Santa Monica Mountains. Starting November 23rd, 1938 and burning out of control for several days, it threatened much valuable property, situated in and adjacent to the area. The circumstances attending this fire were in some respects unique in the experience of the Los Angeles Fire Department, and certain observations have been made to make this report informative and trustworthy as to the facts stated.
ORIGIN OF FIRE
The point of origin was the Trippet Ranch in a valley tributary to Topanga Canyon, about three miles from the mouth of Topanga Canyon, a portion of which property lies within the City of Los Angeles and the greater portion within Los Angeles County. The ranch house is situated on the City limits line and for a time there was some doubt as to whether the fire originated in City or County territory, but it is now determined that the point of origin was within the City. The fire was caused by the thoughtless act of the caretaker of the Trippet Ranch who had thrown out a pile of supposedly dead ashes near the edge of the brush. The live coals therein were carried into the brush by the high north winds prevailing, and due to the extremely low humidity at the time, the progress of the resulting fire was very rapid. Upon discovery, the caretaker attempted to extinguish the fire but failed. By the the alarm was received the fire was under great headway.
The first alarm received was at 12:49 p.m. November 23rd. It was reported by a member of the Bureau of Fire Alarm, who had been sent to Fire Department Lookout Station No. 3 which is located an Temescal Peak, to repair No. 2 Mulholland telephone line, which services the Mountain Patrol stations and is connected with the County Forestry Station in Topanga Canyon. While engaged in this duty, he observed the fire soon after its beginning and seeing that it was attaining headway rapidly, notified the Signal Office.
ALARMS AND ASSIGNMENTS
Upon receipt of first alarm at 12:49 p.m. November 23rd, the Signal Office immediately dispatched the following assignment:
Department tractors were ordered by
Assistant Chief O. B. Lewis and Captain G. L. Watson.
At 1:13 p.m., November 23rd, Assistant Chief Moore called for 100 additional men to be dispatched to the lower end of Santa Ynez Canyon, in response to which call the 1st, 2nd and 3rd brush fire details were sent, consisting of the members on duty in the following companies:
At 2:10 p.m., Assistant Chief Lewis asked for 25 men at Temescal Lookout and 25 of the above 131 men were sent there.
At 3:05 p.m., by order of the Chief Engineer (Chief
Scott), Signal "9-9-9" was given over the alarm system which recalled to duty
the entire off-duty platoon. The off-duty men reported promptly. Some were
used to man the apparatus which was moved into vacant companies. A crew was
assembled for Engine 51 apparatus and moved to Engine 76. Tank Wagon 74 was moved to
At 1:52 a.m., November 24th, the following additional companies were dispatched to the fire:
Through the Signal Office, the following company apparatus was sent to the fire:
During the progress of the fire, the following move-ups were made:
Telephone communication was maintained
throughout the period of the fire, although 4 poles were burned north of Temescal
Lookout. On the ocean side, temporary headquarters were established at a real estate
office on Sunset Boulevard at Mandeville Canyon, which was maintained throughout the fire.
ASSIGNMENT OF RECALLED (OFF-DUTY) MEN
Prior to the issuance of "9-9-9" signal recalling the off-duty platoon, 22 companies had been closed and the members transported to the scene of the fire in Los Angeles Fire Department transportation rigs. This signal was given at 3:05 p.m. November 23rd, and at 5:30 p.m. all of these 22 companies had been re-manned by off-duty members, and in addition 6 pieces of relief equipment were manned which were placed in companies that had responded with apparatus to the fire. At this hour 200 additional men of the off-duty platoon were on their way to the fire in trucks furnished by the Department of Water and Power. By 9:30 p.m., the same evening 88 additional men were being similarly transported, making a total of 419 men and 10 chief officers at the scene of the fire. This crew and the succeeding crews were relieved as follows:
Headquarters Assistant Chiefs remained constantly on duty without change of personnel from the beginning of the fire for a 5 day period.
Early in the progress of the fire, it was apparent that financial obligation would necessarily be incurred for food, tractor hire, emergency purchases of gasoline and other items. Through the personal efforts and representation of the Hon. Stephen W. Cunningham (in whose Councilmanic District the fire occurred) an appropriation of $15,000 went through the Council promptly, was immediately approved by the Mayor, and purchases began to be made against the same.
It is believed that all bills have been submitted, checked, and demands drawn for payment. These total as follows:
Fortunately, by far the greatest portion of the terrain ravaged by the fire was brush covered mountains and canyons wherein there was no human habitation; near the beach line, many fine homes were exposed and the Department made stand after stand to save these properties as the fire progressed from the western City limits easterly to the point where control was finally attained in Mandeville Canyon, a distance of over 6 miles. In this entire area, the following structures were destroyed by fire:
The above is a total of 33 buildings destroyed by the fire (including floors for tent houses and structures of every character) and the total building fire loss is $16,931.25 with additional contents loss of $2,297.00. The low contents loss is accounted for the fact that many of the tenants, warned of the progress of the fire, had removed their most valuable personal possessions.
Of course, no definite estimate of loss can be made respecting the brush cover. Aside form the aesthetic value, the brush cover is indispensable to protect the hills and mountains from erosion during the heavy winter rains. Fortunately, the majority of the canyons denuded by the fire empty directly into the ocean and the threat of serious flood damage is not especially acute. In other canyons, such as Rustic and Mandeville, there may be a different story after the first heavy rains creating flood conditions, as considerable property is subject to risk before the water is discharged into the ocean. A great deal depends upon what kind of weather conditions are in store for this section during the next several winter seasons.
By good fortune and much effort none of the fine homes located along the ocean front and in the lower portion of several canyons were lost. The utmost efforts of the Department were put forth to prevent involvement of these properties in the fire and had it not been for these efforts the fire loss would have been very heavy. Nothing but the availability of water made it possible for the Department to control the fire at these points. Operations were necessarily carried on over a long front from Castle Rock easterly along the coast to Sunset Boulevard and along Sunset Boulevard to Mandeville Canyon, a total frontage distance exceeding 6 miles. The fire did not cross Sunset Boulevard at any point but burned close to this boundary at many points.
FIRST AID SERVICE
Almost immediately as the fire progressed, the necessity for first aid and medical services at the scene of the fire was apparent. Many painful injuries, fortunately none of a major nature, were reported. These injuries, for the most part consisted of conjunctivitis (eye inflammation), sprains, cuts and burns. The first cases were taken to the Georgia Street Hospital but as soon as the probable extent and duration of the fire was seen, Dr. Charles E. Sebastian, Assistant Chief Surgeon under Dr. Wallace Dodge, arranged for the furnishing of medical and first aid service at the scene of the fire. One of the city first aid ambulances was taken out of regular city service for this work and was stationed at Engine 69, Pacific Palisades, as the most generally accessible point.
By direction of Dr. Sebastian, Drs. Guernsey, Bunch, Hall and Rogers, with Drivers Truesdale, Carlson and Gerrett were assigned to man these ambulances and these men labored night and day in caring for the cases referred to them. A few of the cases of conjunctivitis were quite severe and in several instances were hospitalized at Georgia St. Hospital. The majority of cases, however, were relieved by the above doctors at the scene. One hundred sixty-seven of the latter cases were thus treated; one hundred sixty-five were treated at the Receiving Hospital, which number includes those brought in prior to the dispatch of the ambulances and crew to the scene of the fire. Several severe cases were referred to eye specialists and these cases will no doubt be relieved from duty for a considerable period pending recovery.
At the Receiving Hospital, special nurses were placed on duty to assist the attending physicians and to work in the wards. The regular staff of the Hospital sacrificed their free time unsparingly and did everything possible to relieve the suffering of our members. The entire staff of the Receiving Hospital organization is to be commended for the earnest, capable and invaluable services to this Department on this occasion.
The Medical Records Bureau of the Fire Department maintained close touch with the situation, the officer in charge doing liaison duty between headquarters, the Receiving Hospital and the members. This Bureau maintained day and night service, disregarding the general holiday, Saturday, and Sunday included in the fire period.
The Department members suffered from exposure to poison oak, 90 cases being reported, 3 of which are extremely severe. There were 42 cases of general injury, 5 cases of painful burns, 4 cases of extreme exhaustion, and 37 respiratory cases. Excessive strain and exertion is showing ill effects in several additional instances. The Medical Records Bureau Physician personally treated 215 cases; 4 cases are hospitalized at this writing. Considering the serious nature, the extent and duration of this fire, the Department considers itself fortunate that the situation in respect to injuries it not more grave than the records show.
The American Red Cross was quick to recognize the emergency and to respond with men and equipment for the relief of injured men. Mr. Gordon, Chief of the First Aid Division of the American Red Cross, Los Angeles Chapter, responded with first aid truck and assistants who, during the full course of the fire, numbered 140. This truck moved from one point to another throughout the fire area, performing countless individual services, most of which were of a minor character and not reported to this office.
CO-OPERATION OF OTHER AGENCIES
The threatening nature and probable extent and duration of the fire did not become apparent until well into the afternoon of Wednesday, November 23rd. November 24th was a regular holiday and the securing of food and services in general proved a very difficult problem. However, never before in the history of the Department have we experienced such interest on the part of the public. Hundreds of individuals offered their services and many worked as volunteers as stated. We were offered the use of wind machines, flood lighting equipment, transportation trucks, dirigible, airplanes and other equipment. Literally dozens of suggestions were received from well meaning people, giving advice, for the most part fantastic, as to how to control and extinguish the fire. Our Signal Office men were kept on duty during their off-shifts to assist in handling the telephone traffic. The Department wishes to commend the Southern California Telephone Company for very excellent character of services at all times during this emergency.
The assistance received from the Receiving Hospital and the American Red Cross has already been mentioned. The American Legion Posts should be included, particularly Hollywood, North Hollywood, Santa Monica and Van Nuys. Certain governmental groups rendered service of an exceptional character.
The Department of Water and Power was appealed to on the afternoon of November 23rd, after the transportation of 131 men had taxed the transportation facilities of the Fire Department to the limit. Without the slightest hesitation, the Water Bureau responded with all motor trucks needed to transport the great number of men assigned to the fire. Specifically, trucks (furnished with drivers in each case) were received from the Water Bureau as follows:
Some of the trucks were
kept in the service of the Fire Department for the entire 8 day period--November 23rd to
30th. In addition to the transportation trucks, much other equipment was furnished
by the Department of Water and Power, specifically as follows:
The total aggregate hours of use of these units, 65 in all, numbered 2745 and the Department estimate of the cost of this service is $2,843.38. Besides the equipment of a total of 98 dispatchers, drivers and servicemen were assigned from the Water and Power Department for this emergency who worked 3533 total aggregate hours at a labor cost of $3,942.64. The Fire Department or the City will not be billed for these expenditures. Such a notable aid to the fire service cannot be lightly regarded. In passing, it may be noted that no mechanical failures were experienced in the handling of the Water and Power equipment.
To the City Engineer, Street Maintenance Division, this Department is indebted for important services. At our request, five 1200-gallon flushing tank trucks were furnished, which were used approximately 100 hours, drivers being furnished by that Division for the entire period. In the final stand in Mandeville Canyon this service was indispensable.
Certainly no report of this character is complete without reference to the very important co-operation received by the City of Los Angeles, under the direction of the County Forester and Fire Warden Spence D. Turner. On November 23rd, 24th and 25th, the County organization was quite fully occupied with the fire in Topanga Canyon, the greater portion of which territory is in the County. After the fire in this sector was brought under control, a minimum number of men were held on the County front for "cold trailing" and all who could be spared reported to the east front which was entirely within the City and no longer menacing county territory. Equipment of the County included one DH 4 (caterpillar bulldozer) and one Seagrave pumper with 600-gallon tank. This assistance was of inestimable value in the final control of the fire in West Mandeville Canyon. For the valuable counsel and services of Chief Turner, Chiefs Thurston, Davis and a full fire company the Los Angeles Fire Department is indeed under great obligation. It was a splendid instance of co-operation, and the officers and members of the County Department worked tirelessly and with as little regard as to hours of service as did the City firemen.
Many civilians reported to and voluntarily worked at the fire, some very effectively; but the Department, remembering the fatal experience of some years ago when a number of civilian laborers lost their lives in a brush fire in this City, did not wish to regularly employ them. During the early hours of the fire before the off-duty platoon could begin to function, a very few were employed and put to work. We have felt obliged to compensate 7 civilians who according to the reports were employed by a chief officer in authority.
I do not wish to be understood as disparaging the work of men outside the ranks of the Fire Department, but there is an important difference to be considered when sending men into places of danger. Firemen are under the protection of an adequate pension system while civilians are not. Firemen are well aware of the dangers of brush fire fighting and understand that the saving of a few acres of brush is not worth the sacrifice of lives. Civilians in the excitement of the occasion are apt to forget the ordinary considerations of personal safety. Squads of our regular members had very narrow escapes in this fire due to the extremely low humidity, the high wind and the resulting speed of travel of the flames. Had civilian laborers been in similar positions, unprotected by proper clothing, with unsuitable shoes and little or no equipment, the result might have been disastrous for many.
A number of civilians working as volunteers sustained minor injuries such as our own members experienced. These were treated by the American Red Cross and the Receiving Hospital surgeons, the same as our regular members were treated. I have not heard that any serious case of injury has developed.
There are yearly periods of low humidity in Southern California, and when this condition prevails during the progress of a brisk wind from the interior little can be done to stop the progress of a brush fire after it has attained great headway. Fire starting in a region remote from established fire fighting units necessarily attains great headway under such circumstances. It was observed that spot fires were set hundreds of yards, in some instances nearly half a mile, in advance of the fire. Under such conditions and circumstances, sending men ahead of the fire with no better protection than brush hooks and shovels is fraught with too great personal danger. Ordinary fire fighting measures at such a time are quite ineffective and anything attempted must necessarily be predicated upon previous preparatory work. There were cases when without undue danger to life this fire might have been stopped by an existing firebreak, if the firebreak had been thoroughly cleaned of vegetation. However, due to our limited finances, no comprehensive job of cleaning has been done for several years and the breaks were consequently covered with light growth. Even after the high wind had abated fire burned across these breaks over such a wide front that nothing could stop it. Firebreaks must be cleaned of all growth or they soon lose their protective value.
Programs of motorway and trail construction, which for years have been carried on in the Santa Monica Mountain area through various agencies, lately to a much greater degree through W. P. A. under the direction of the City Engineer, have in my opinion eminently proved their value to the Department. Without fire roads on the east and west ridges of Mandeville Canyon, the fire could not have been reached and undoubtedly would not have been brought under control at this point. These roads have made it possible to move large numbers of men and much equipment rapidly through the mountain area. Their importance in this and future emergencies that may arise must not be lost sight of.
According to reports of the Fire Department Maps and Drafting Officer, who has made a conscientious check of the entire district since the fire, the total acreage burned over in the City of Los Angeles was 11,720 or 18.3 square miles. The fire-swept area in County territory is likewise closely estimated to be 4,288 acres or 6.7 square miles, a total of 25 square miles in both City and County. Approximately 24 per cent of the total area of the mountain district west of Cahuenga Avenue was burned over in this ire.
The general progress of the fire during the first sixteen hours was southerly on account of a strong north wind which was blowing on the 23rd and which continued throughout the night. By morning of the 24th, the wind had abated considerably but the condition of extreme dryness continued. During the remainder of the fire period, the wind did not reach comparably velocity, which was fortunate, indeed, and made ultimate control of the fire possible, although it presented a very wide front to the fire fighters. Without the handicap of strong wind, we were able to gradually pinch the fire out at different points until it was finally brought under control on the west slope of Mandeville Canyon. During the period of the first 16 hours, approximately 1/2 of the total area was burned over. The additional area of 6,000 acres was burned in the next several days. The official duration of this fire was 268 hours 11 minutes.
Very little resort was had to back firing. In the case of a group of men under the command of Deputy Chief Blake, who were caught in a pocket along the Santa Ynez fire road, back-firing was resorted to save the lives of the men whose escape was blocked. Back-firing in the presence of a high wind is dangerous as the back-fire usually adds to the difficulties of control and accomplishes nothing else. Some judicious back-firing was done in the absence of strong winds and where suitable numbers of men were at had to direct the course of such back-firing.
The purchase, delivery and distribution of food proved to be a problem more serious than had been expected. This emergency came on the eve of a general holiday and the usual sources of supply were not dependable. For several days, coffee and sandwiches were the only food possible to furnish and on account of the rapid movement of men from one place to another, the distribution problem was a difficult one. Many men went hungry for excessively long periods. I recommend that the Department soon be provided with several small light and easily transportable kitchens, by which it will be possible to furnish hot coffee at least and food under most circumstances to fire fighters so detailed. Mountain fire fighting is arduous work and the men need plenty of food and stimulant if the most effective work is to be accomplished. I feel that there will be some features of economy through such a plan. The Department was obliged under the circumstances to purchase food and coffee in small retail lots, paying the top prices for the same and inevitably some of these supplies were wasted--the waste bearing some direct proportion to the members who failed to be properly supplied. Probably such rigs may be manned by the Department members who are sufficiently capable to handle the same, but not physically fit for the more strenuous effort of actual fire fighting, preparing as much food and drink as required without much waste of materials.
I recommend that the large water supply main be continued from its present terminus on Mulholland Highway, westerly along this highway on the city limits line; and that laterals be run from this main along each existing and contemplated fire road, running from Mulholland Highway to Ventura Boulevard on the north and to Sunset Boulevard on the south. This will entail a large expenditure which must be assumed if dangerous fires, occurring under the climatic conditions which caused this extensive fire, are to be suppressed in early stages. Hydrants at suitable distances along all such mains are of course a part of the recommended improvement.
Further I recommend that the program of motorway building continue without delay until the comprehensive program previously planned and authorized is brought to completion. The roads already constructed were of incalculable value in the late emergency. Also, I recommend that sufficient appropriations be made so that the existing firebreaks which, as stated, have not been cleaned for several years, may be made absolutely clear of all vegetable matter. If this is done, the Fire Department will have an excellent chance of controlling any fire in its early stages, except on the rare occasions when the elements (dry winds from the interior accompanied by excessively low humidity) are against us.
The Department needs more large trucks which can be used for the rapid transportation of large numbers of men. Such equipment of this character as the Fire Department owns was taxed to the limit during the early hours of the fire. As stated, the Department of Water and Power came to our relief promptly, which action bridged the emergency at the moment, but it probably is not the best policy to assume that such assistance will in the future be so readily available.
As elsewhere noted in this report, the Department depended largely on outside sources for caterpillars and bulldozers, this Department having only two which are dependable and we were obliged to avail ourselves of this equipment through the good offices of the County of Los Angeles, the Water and Power Department and by renting from private parties. This is very expensive equipment and rental charges are necessarily high. It is indispensable equipment, however, in certain fire fighting situations in the mountains.
To the worthy members of the Los Angeles Fire Department whose splendid services at this fire are a standing tribute to the traditions of the fraternity, my sincere thanks.
R. J. Scott, Chief Engineer.
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