By ROBERT T. DOVE
As nearly as it can be determined, the La Tuna Canyon holocaust had a
very innocent and unspectacular birth. Two eight year old boys, in their own back yard in
the 9600 block of La Tuna Canyon, and, without any malicious plans for the future, were
preparing a noonday feast. A strong easterly wind carried enough of their fire across a
clearing to ignite the adjacent hillside brush. One of the boy's father responded with
department-like speed to their cry for help and valiantly attempted to extinguish the
burning grass and brush with a garden hose. The wind quickly drove the fire through the
tinder dry fuel and out of his reach. The father immediately called the fire department
and the rest of the account of the fire is a matter of radio log history. The first-in
Company reported a large, rapidly growing brush fire and immediately asked for additional
help. This indication that a major brush fire was burning out of control heralded in five
nightmarish days and nights of wind driven fires in the rugged western half of the Verdugo
The 1955 La Tuna Canyon fire is actually a series of fires that burned in many
directions at the beckon of wind and terrain conditions. At various times there were two
or three major fire heads on the rampage simultaneously. A daily box score might help
straighten out the maze of radio messages and on-the-scene reports that were issued.
Sunday, Nov. 6--
12:30 P.M. to 2:00 P.M.
Fire traveled north and east to the Shadow Island Dr. area and an attempt was made to hold
along the Green Verdugo Fire Road.
1:45 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.
A second and separate fire in the 9800 block of La Tuna Canyon. This was maliciously set
by an eleven year old boy who apparently wasn't satisfied with the fire to the north.
2:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M.
Fire jumps Green Verdugo Fire Road on a half-mile front and is stopped above the homes
along Day and McGroarty Streets, west on Ora Vista.
6:00 P.M. to 8:00 A.M., Monday
Fire break constructed along east flank of the fire from the Green Verdugo Fire Road to
the St. Elizabeth grounds in La Tuna Canyon.
Monday, Nov. 7--
10:30 A.M. to 12:00 Noon
Fire breaks out of the Shadow Island Dr. area and is driven north and west to Sunland
12:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.
Fire is driven south and west to La Tuna Canyon, Tuxford St. and Sunland Blvd.
3:30 P.M. to 4:30 P.M.
Fire front moves east to endanger homes in the Glencrest-Bluffdale area.
5:30 P.M. to 6:30 P.M.
Fire front moves west and south to Glenoaks Blvd.
7:00 P.M. to 10:30 P.M.
Fire front moves east to cross Wildwood Fire Road and south across Chandler Fire Road to
the Mother Cabrina area.
10:30 P.M. to 9:00 A.M. Tuesday
Fire moves slowly to the east in the high hills between La Tuna Canyon and Glen Oaks Blvd.
Tuesday, Nov. 8--
10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M.
Fire moves rapidly to the east up La Tuna Canyon and sweeps over the Tujunga hill-side
homes on Reverie Road and Tranquil Dr.
2:00 P.M. to 9:00 P.M.
Fire continues east toward the Hostedder Fire Road and south toward the Verdugo motorway.
2:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.
Fire moves north toward Tujunga and is stopped behind the homes along Verdugo Crestline
3:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M.
Extensive back firing along the Green Verdugo Fire Road blocks any further northward
progress of the fire.
Wednesday, Nov. 9
Cold trail and patrol operations of the fire area.
Thursday, Nov. 10
Continued cold trail and patrol operations.
Flare up along Verdugo Crestline Dr.
Friday, Nov. 11
Continued cold trail and patrol operations.
Saturday, Nov. 12
Completed cold trail and patrol operations.
* * *
The many directional shifts of the fire clearly indicates that erratic wind conditions
hampered the Department effort to control this fire more than any other single factor.
Fire fighting efforts were further compounded by an inadequate water supply and road
conditions throughout the major part of the fire area.
It will be necessary to describe this fire and the fire control operations as a series
of separate fires. Bear in mind this one very important fact--the control and final
extinguishment of the La Tuna Canyon Fire was accomplished through the combined
cooperative effort of many individuals and agencies. It is not possible to record
individual or agency credit in an article of this size. Still, in fairness, it must be
clearly established that the cooperation of outside agencies contributed immeasurable to
the successfulness of the operation. The Los Angeles County Fire Department furnished many
fully manned Engine and Tank Companies as well as the steady procession of Camp Crews and
bulldozers seen in operation throughout the extent of the fire. The Federal Forestry gave
us timely aid with six pieces of fire equipment with crews and a large hand tool crew. The
fire departments of Burbank and Glendale added some very needed additional assistance
whenever it was required.
When you consider this and the assistance contributed by the Police Department, the
Board of Education, the Red Cross and other agencies, and the hundreds of hardworking
citizens, the surprisingly low property loss figure is readily understandable. Now let us
examine the records as it points out one fire at a time.
THE SUNDAY FIRE
It has already been stated that a growing major brush fire greeted the first assignment
companies as they pulled in to the fire. Their efforts were directed at curtailing the
lateral movement of the fire along the north wall of La Tuna Canyon. By this time, the
fire had such a speed, that catching it along the ridge was out of the question. As
additional companies arrived, they were sent up Sunland Blvd. to Shadow Island Dr. and up
a dirt road that is called "the airport road." The main ridge south of Sunland
Blvd. has been fairly well leveled off in an unsuccessful effort to give the San Fernando
Valley a fog-free airport. Though it is no landing strip, it is an ideal fire break and
with aggressive hose line work, the northern and western movement of the fire was
temporarily brought under control.
The eastern flank of the fire posed an entirely different problem and was later to give
us no end of trouble. At this time, the directional head of the fire was to the east over
rugged brush covered hills and canyons. This area has no fire breaks or fire roads and the
fire gave the tractor crews no time to construct hasty breaks.
One energetic attempt to block the eastern progress of the fire was made with the net
result of proving once again, that a 4-wheeled drive tank wagon will go practically
anywhere that there is room for its tires. Utilization ridge lines and trails suitable
only for goats or bulldozers, the tank wagon with an eager 15-man crew gave the fire a
temporary setback. As it proved out, this effort was 10 minutes late and a 1000 foot of
When this effort failed, a fear became a fact! Now it was clearly demonstrated that the
City of Los Angeles had an uncontrolled fire burning in inaccessible terrain. Further, the
fire was burning so swiftly that there was little possibility of establishing an organized
position to block the fire's immediate progress. By 1:45 P.M. rugged terrain and a strong
wind gave the initiative to the fire, and for the next four hours, the fire fighter fought
a dangerous and heroic defensive battle. No homes were lost, but Autofireman James Catlow
was so severely burned that it cost him his life.
Separating the homes in Sunland from the fire was a single brush covered ridge. Running
along the crest of this ridge strategically located turn-arounds and water tanks, and has
been fire tested many times in the past as an adequate defensive position. Once again the
decision was made to defend along the road. Hastily, the equipment was redirected to this
location. A 2 1/2" hose line was laid from the fire road down to a hydrant on the
Sunland side and was immediately loaded. About 10 pieces of equipment were on hand to be
spotted when a very dangerous situation developed. The wind suddenly changed toward the
north and drove the fire out of the lateral canyons and up the slope toward the Green
Verdugo Fire Road. Though this action on the part of the fire was anticipated, its speed
and the intensity was simply overpowering. Quickly, the rigs were spotted in the closet
available cover and many protective lines were laid. For a distance of 100 or more feet
along the road, the fire was aggressively, though futily fought. 1 1/2" fire streams
nearly disappeared in the furnace-like heat. As the main body of the fire swept over the
position, all water was directed to protect the men and the equipment from the effects of
the intense heat. Men without hose lines laid in the mud and were kept wet from nearby
rigs. Some men stacked up on the ground like hot cakes with the top man keeping the pile
wet with a hose line.
It was during this momentary eternity that Autofireman James Catlow brought everlasting
credit to himself as well as everyone in the fire service. Hose Wagon 39 was in a narrow
spot in the road, as the fire hit there too fast to actually get set. He was able to get
two lines into action, and by working one, he performed superhumanly in an effort to
protect his equipment for future use, and to keep the road open for men who were ahead of
him. His injuries were not accidentally incurred, as he could have retreated merely 10
yards to relative safety. His act of heroism required unbelievable determination and
demonstrates to all to see and realize that a devoted fireman will do his full duty
regardless of personal cost.
The fire swept over the Green Verdugo Fire Road on a half-mile front and continued its
relentless courses toward the many homes along Day and McGroaaty Streets in Sunland.
Attempts were made at both the east and west flanks to stop the downhill progress of the
fire, but it quickly outdistanced the available tanks and pumpers were hurried into the
Sunland community and the northern movement of the fire was stopped on the slope, before
the homes were endangered. At the same time, tractors constructed hasty breaks along the
flanks of the fir4e. By 5:00 P.M. this northern front was secured.
An hour later a mass of City and County personnel and equipment was assembled on the
eastern flank of the fire on the Green Verdugo Fire Road. Three bulldozers and nearly one
hundred men with hose lines and hand tools worked throughout the night to construct a fire
break down into La Tuna Canyon. Proof of their good work is attested to by the fact that
no amount of wind and flare ups could push the fire across the break they constructed.
This type of night operation is very hazardous, and two stuck bulldozers in the burning
brush, many falls, and countless crashing boulders impressed this truth on everyone's
mind. In spite of the difficulties, everyone was justly proud of their work on the Sunday
THE MONDAY FIRE
Monday was the day of big plans. Monday was also the day of big winds. The big plan phase
of the day began about two in the morning. Even the most pessimistic planner could vision
the final containment of the fire by noon. The "B" shift "firefighter"
gave the A shift "cold trailer" the usual pep-talk routine. From all indications
the day's work was going to be a routine operation of putting the fire to bed and picking
up the hose. By working all through the night on the east and south flanks, the big job
was done. We thought!
Around 2:00 a.m., Monday morning, the west flank began to flare up down in Del Arroyo
Canyon. It was a lazy little fire without much promise for the future. With reluctance, it
was determined that this flank would have to wait until dawn to be secured. Actually the
terrain was so rugged and unfamiliar that a night operation was considered too risky to
personnel. At the time, it appeared wisest to plan and assemble men and equipment for a
daylight attack. Considering everything, it was a rosy dawn on Monday morning.
Now in this area, early morning winds are rare, seldom if ever are they gusty, and they
simply never blow to the north west. Yet this was the combination that faced the fire
fighter. The prepared line went down into the canyon quickly and an energetic attempt was
made to halt the fires westward move. Frustratingly, the fire kept just beyond the reach
of the nozzle. Soon the wind took charge of the situation and drove the fire up the north
wall of the canyon toward the Sunland Blvd.-Dale Ave. area. This flare-up was aggressively
fought, and with a directional change in the wind, was soon controlled.
This change in the wind was certainly no bargain. Because of this severe and gusty
north wind, the fire fighter battled one crisis after another from 10 o'clock in the
morning until 10 o'clock at night. Control of the fire as utterly out of the question.
Just saving homes, taxed the capabilities of the fire fighter to the utmost. For every
fireman on the scene, this was certainly one day of trial by fire. With brains, guts and a
little water, nearly a hundred homes were saved from destruction or damage by fire.
Tank wagons and Patrol trucks had a field day in this fast traveling fire. For the most
part, the fire did not allow enough time for an Engine Company to lay and pick up. Getting
set once during the six or seven periods of crisis was a real accomplishment and a well
The spread of this fire is more easily realized by stating that two mountain Patrolmen
in one rig layed hose, fought fire, picked up and moved to the head of the fire, eight
separate times during a forty minute period. The success of a score of tank crews is
indicated by the low structural loss figures. Ignoring an unknown amount for contents,
$12,000.00 should cover the losses of the Nursery office, two garages and the various
One illustration of fire fighting during "Operation Leapfrog" can be
considered typical of the whole day's work. Envision a rig racing into the yard of a
hillside from just minutes ahead of the onrushing fire. Hose lines were quickly laid and
loaded by the tired but well drilled crew. The driver stuffs every available garden hose
into the top of the tank and starts refilling regardless of the water level in the tank.
Hurriedly the structures are closed up, then shrubbery and combustibles are cleared away
from the structures and butane tanks. The long cared for cypress hedge is put to the axe,
and the wail of the property owner is answered with a friendly "I'll chop-you
push." Occasionally burning out ahead of the fire is started where there is time.
There the fire hits and for the next 3 or 4 minutes, the fire fighter lives in a nightmare
of blowing smoky heat, sparks and dirt while he keeps himself, the structure and the rig
covered with water. After the main fire passes, the little fires around the house are
extinguished, the roof and eaves wet down, and the inside of the house and attic is
checked. Then the hose is "figure eighted" on the top of the rig and the race is
on once more to get ahead of the fire. Left behind is one more example to prove that a
determined crew with reasonable clearance and a little water can save someone's home and
years of memories from destruction by fire.
Monday was a day of successful defensive fire fighting. The fire fighter never looked
better in his whole life.
THE TUESDAY FIRE
This was the day the wind blew toward the East! During the early morning hours the homes
along the upper canyon floor of La Tuna were protected by a large fire fighting force as
the fire moved eastward behind them. By nine o'clock in the morning the fire had crossed
over and outflanked a fire break that had been laboriously constructed during the night.
The wind came up early and began to push a large fire up La Tuna Canyon toward the Tujunga
homes that lie in a big brush filled basin at the top of Hillhaven Ave.
As in the rest of the Mountain area, this fire has been preplanned for years by the
first-in company and the mountain patrol. A careful survey indicated that 43 homes would
be directly threatened by a large fire in this area. By 10 o'clock in the morning this
anticipated large fire was an immediate reality. Here again, the speed of the fire vastly
increased the danger to the fire fighter and reduced the time of preparation. All
available tank wagons, booster tanks, and all Mt. Patrol rigs were rushed to this area.
The water supply in the vicinity was reinforced by a hose line up Hillhaven from Foothill
Blvd. Through a combination of sound planning, good leadership and a maximum effort by all
concerned, we were ready when the fire hit.
The fire had a front of approximately two blocks initially. It was the most impressive
phase of the week long battle. Preceding the fire line by 75 yards was a wave of flame
over 100 feet high. There was no smoke at ground level and surprisingly little heat as
volumes of fresh air were being sucked into the fire. The noise of the fire and the fact
that the sun was completely blotted out, contributed more to the unreality of the
situation than did the heat.
For the fireman on the scene, there was little or no time to watch the awesomeness of
the fire or the queer antics of the domestic animals as they were freed from their pens.
It was the same old familiar rush of clearing combustibles away from structures and butane
tanks and of laying the all important hose lines.
These facts can be flatly stated here and now. Every home that could be saved by the
use of water, was saved. Tank vehicles should not waste any water in wetting down thick
brush ahead of such a large fire--save every drop for the personnel, the structure and the
rig. The mobility of a water carrying rig in this type of a fight is of singular
importance. When one house is safe, pick up, refill and become available to the officer in
The main body of the fire swept over the homes in the Reverie Road-Tranquil Dr. area at
about 11 o'clock in the morning. The local inhabitants, who barely got out of the path of
the fire with an armload of valuables were afforded a dreadful view from various vantage
points. All that could be seen through the smoke and fire were glimpses of firemen working
small lines and rigs moving to the various houses. Not even the bravest soul would predict
even limited success for the 40 to 50 firemen battling in the area. As the smoke cleared
to reveal some homes still safe and as the radio reports began coming in, hope began to
push aside the gloom. As before, the combination of guts, water, and a little clearing
around the structures had won another battle against a powerful fire.
The emotional impact of this discovery on the part of the home owners cannot be
described easily. A person who is forced to abandon his life long possessions and memories
to apparently inevitable destruction by fire is not too coherent in his praise and
thanksgiving when he finds that all is not lost. Fire and smoke failed to put the lump in
the fireman's throat that came with the realization that the babbling praise and tear
filled eyes of the local population was not caused by smoke and excitement.
Even with all the efforts of the fireman, the fire took too big of a toll. Structure
loss in this area were two homes and garages and nine sheds, all valued at $40,000.00.
This figure does not show the value of the contents of the structures, the damaged homes,
or the destroyed domestic animals.
Though the main fire moved on to the east to be controlled by bulldozer and camp crews,
the Tujunga community was far from safe. At about noon, the fire along the slopes of La
Tuna Canyon turned north, and many homes along Verdugo Crestline Dr. were threatened. Each
home was protected in turn as the fire came up to it. Even though everyone worked steadily
for 2 or 3 hours, the fire nowhere reached its moving intensity.
At 3:00 p.m. drastic action was taken by the fire fighter that for once and for all was
to take the initiative away from the fire. Large scale back-firing operations were
commenced. It was clearly evident that the fire along the slopes of La Tuna Canyon would
continue to burn northward on a wide front. In this area, the green Verdugo Fire Road is
on the La Tuna downhill side, and it is not a good defensive position. It was wisely
decided to back fire from the road even though a mile and a tenth is quite a fire to
The actual operation was a gigantic affair and smoked over 140 fire fighters and nearly
thirty pieces of equipment. It required the hose and pumping duties of nine pumpers to
furnish the relay line that was 2.1 miles long. Including patrol rigs, there were about 20
tank wagons used. Working with calculated movement, the job was completed in about six
hours. The conduct of the operation was an organizational masterpiece. Additional men and
equipment were sent up from Base Camp as they were required. The brush above the fire road
was carefully wet down before back firing was commenced. Every inch of this private fire
had over-lapping hand lines to keep it under control. Observers at vantage points were
constantly on the lookout for spotting behind the back fire. Complete and enthusiastic
cooperation on everyone's part was the order of the day. In all, it was a completely safe
operation, even if it did scare the Sunland-Tujunga Civilians half out of their wits. They
thought we were back firing from Catalina!
At about midnight, the main fire made its last big run. Flames estimated at one hundred
feet high roared up to meet the back fire. By this time there were a hundred yards of
cleared ground between the Fire Road and the main fire. Only small sparks got into the
unburned brush, and in wet brush they did no harm. With the exception of one short lined
flare-up on Thursday. The La Tuna Fire was all over but the shouting!
PATROLLING AND COLD TRAIL OPERATIONS
It is not fair to the firemen who successfully executed this operation to slight this
phase of the fire. It's not that we pity them for the sweat they expended, but their's was
an extremely important job.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday is officially logged as "Patrol and Cold
Trail Operations." What a masterpiece of understatement!! Many men swung brush hooks
and shovels for hours just to insure that the fire would not eat up one more valuable
square foot of ground cover. Headlights and flashlights could be seen at all hours of the
night in the areas that had not yet been secured.
This job was hard, unspectacular labor. From no angle can it be considered fun. The
hills were steep and rocky and in some places the brush was so thick, axes had to replace
the brush hook.
One typical operation took place early Friday morning. A night crew had come out for
supper at midnight from a very steep area. They reported growth too big for brush hooks, a
ragged fire line with large hot spots well into the unburned brush, and, a hose line at
the crack of dawn was agreed upon as the solution for this situation. Men and equipment
were assembled and the line was flanked out at the top. The hill was so steep, it took
only 12 minutes to get 1750 feet of 1" hose down to the hot spots. Thirty minutes
later, the fire was put out for keeps. It took two hours and a half of the most strenuous
work to get the hose and crew back to the top. This operation points out the thoroughness
and seriousness of the work of the cold trailing crew.
The value of a good cold trail shows up in two important ways. It insures that a fire,
once controlled, will not rekindle to embarrass and plague a battleweary fire department.
It prevents further burning and guarantees that additional tons of mud and boulders will
not be washed down on the homes below when the winter rains strike. The cold trail does
nothing for the burned over area, but it can represent thousands of dollars saved from the
flood damage toll. The simple log book statement of "Patrol and Cold Trail
Operations" represents miles of very successful cold trails and a well performed
completion for a job of fire fighting.
The La Tuna Canyon fire didn't go out --it was put out! Every fire fighter can be
justly proud of an excellent record and his job well done.