A Holocaust Strikes the Hollywood Hills
By Inspector OTTO FIRGENS
Los Angeles City Fire Department
On Friday, May 12, 1961, in the Los Angeles City Fire Department's
dispatcher's office at Westlake the activities had been about normal--172 alarms of which
75 were fires, 7 of these were classed in the over $1000 category and 2 developed into
The dispatchers had finished their dinner and the Captain in charge was busying himself
gathering and preparing material for his nightly contribution to a radio broadcast called
"Night Line," to answer the commentator's question--"What's going on in Los
It was typical summery evening in Los Angeles--bright, clear, and warm, but it was
windy in the hills. Then at 7:43 p.m. the alarm board started lighting up like a Christmas
tree. First one light, then two seconds later several more, and 10 minutes later the
entire board was lit with calls from citizens reporting a fire in the Hollywood Hills.
First information obtained was that a brush fire was burning in the area of North
Beachwood Drive and Ledgewood Drive, which is high in the hills about 1 mile above the
heart of Hollywood. Later investigations disclosed it started in the rear of 3009
The hillsides in this area are very steep, the streets are exceptionally narrow with
many of them posted with "No Parking" signs on both sides. Many locations in
this area, which is dotted with homes, can only be reached by one route. Numerous new
homes cantilevered over steep hillsides which are heavily covered with brush, added to the
conflagration-potential of this particular district, always considered by fire fighters in
the area as a possible stage for disaster.
In a trice, the Captain at Westlake evaluated these conditions plus the prolonged
Southern California drought and the brisk winds blowing in the canyons. This was trouble
and he knew it! He dropped his preparations for his broadcast, got up from his desk, and
moved about the signal office--peering worriedly over the shoulders of his
dispatchers--all of his senses tuned and alert--his ears tuned to the radio reports from
the responding first alarm companies; his mind tuned to the problems and potential
involved. He was worried.
By the time the first companies arrived on the scene, the fire had developed to the
extent that it already involved one canyon to the northwest of Beachwood Drive and was
making a wind-driven "run" to the north and east.
Captain Jack Ellison, in command of E-82, was the first officer on the scene. His
size-up took into account the extreme danger because of the high wind. He immediately
called for a 2nd alarm, instructing the signal office to dispatch 6 more engine companies.
Due to the heavy brush, high winds, low humidity and rugged terrain the fire developed
into major proportions within 15 minutes of the original alarm. A Major Emergency was
declared at 7:59 p.m. by Field Commander, Battalion Chief John Dick. (As the result of
past experiences with Major fires and the problems they create, the Los Angeles Fire
Department had developed a prearranged response for Major Emergencies. A Special Staff has
been set up to respond immediately upon declaration by the Field Commander that a Major
Emergency exists. This Special Staff consists of 7 Sections which are as follows:
2. Personnel and Apparatus Control
3. Water Supply
4. Supply and Maintenance
5. Public Information
6. Technical (Fire Prevention Bureau)
7. Civil Defense Liaison
This declaration automatically caused many things to happen--most of them involving
action by the signal office in making the notifications and dispatches required. What with
handling the dispatching of companies to the fire and of "move-up"
companies--the signal office had its hands full. This summery evening was no longer
The geographic location and prevailing weather conditions added greatly to the
First--the exceptionally narrow streets with some parked cars made the accessibility by
fire fighting apparatus into the area an extremely difficult problem.
Second-this limited accessibility into the area forced the units that could get in to
lay lines and protect the homes, therefore they were unable to concentrate on the raging
Third--the extremely hazardous wind conditions whipped the fire from one canyon to
another faster than the apparatus could be strategically located.
More units were called to protect residential areas which were now being threatened
ahead of the fire. The response of these units was additionally hampered by the Friday
night revelers who normally take over downtown Hollywood on this night. Upon viewing the
spectacular scene above them in the hills, these people sought to get a closer look at the
holocaust developing before their eyes. This action caused the greatest traffic jam ever
witnessed in this section of Hollywood--and Hollywood has seen some!
The Fire Department did manage to enter and strategically deploy fire fighting units in
time to protect the houses in the "Oaks" region. (A large residential area in
Beachwood Canyon where all the streets are named after oak trees.) This is a heavily
congested residential district located in the hills about a half mile from the Beachwood
section directly east of the threatening fire. This particular Fire Department strategy
paid off in preventing the loss of a single home in this area.
The fire continued to burn out of control toward Mt. Lee and the Griffith Park
Observatory to the east. It was spreading and had already developed a 4 or 5 mile
perimeter. It raced up one canyon and down the other, driven by winds which at times
reached 67 miles per hour. The decision was made to establish the main line of defense
somewhere near the observatory and to set up the command post at the observatory itself
because of its advantageous position for deploying a quantity of fire fighters and
equipment into the area If the fire wasn't contained at this point and had the opportunity
to burn over the summit of Mt. Hollywood, it would directly threaten the bird sanctuary
and the Griffith Park Zoo. Although the zoo was a good half mile from the summit there
would have been no way of stopping the flames until they had reached the zoo itself.
Within three hours the fire had burned to within a few feet of the Civil Defense
Headquarters high atop Mt. Lee. Although 2 small shacks were destroyed at this point, the
Fire Department managed to protect and save the main buildings. It was just to the east of
the Civil Defense Headquarters that the fire spilled over the top and started to burn down
the mountainside towards the San Fernando Valley.
The "last ditch" line of defense near the observatory held and by 12:00
midnight this flank of the fire was contained. In the meantime, units had been dispatched
to the Mt. Hollywood Drive area on the Valley side of Mt. Lee and with the help of a well
planned back fire this flank of the fire was contained by 1:30 a.m. At this hour the
entire fire was considered contained and by this time it had consumed 800 acres of
Preliminary reports indicated that 24 homes were destroyed or damaged, but amazingly,
no one was seriously injured.
Many people were evacuated from their homes and a disaster shelter was set up at the
Chermoya Street School, although there was no general order issued to evacuate the area.
The Hollywood Stables in the Beachwood area was evacuated and approximately 60 horses
were saved. A Girl Scout camp at the end of Canyon Drive was occupied by 146 girls.
However, the Fire Department had the camp surrounded with adequate equipment and hose
lines to prevent a major evacuation of the camp.
Final tabulation showed that there were 8 homes totally destroyed, 9 homes damaged, and
an estimated property loss of $500,000. All of the damaged homes were located in the area
where the fire started and made its first fast run on Beachwood Drive, Deronda Drive,
Rodgerton Drive, and Hollyridge Drive.
The fire finally covered a 10 mile perimeter and burned 814 acres. It took almost 500
men to bring this fire under control. 105 units were on the scene. This included 55 engine
companies (14 of these were from the County), 38 city tankers of various capacities, and,
in addition, there were 12 Misc. Units.
Approximately 200 police and police reserves were needed to handle the huge traffic jam
which spread a distance of almost 3 miles along the foothills involving every side street
for the entire distance.
The last company to leave the scene returned to their quarters at approximately 7:00
a.m. on Sunday, May 14th, almost 36 hours after the start of the fire.
The final count of homes lost was nominal in respect to the almost 500 which were
immediately and directly endangered by this fire over a period of more than 5 hours. Much
credit for this success must be given to the Chief Officers who handled this extensive and
dangerous fire. The dispatching office must also be recognized for the outstanding job
done under such trying conditions.
Yes! If you haven't guessed it by now, the Captain missed his nightly broadcast.