Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

     May 12, 1961
     Beachwood Canyon Fire
     Hollywood Hills 


A Holocaust Strikes the Hollywood Hills

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 greater alarms.

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 Angeles today--firewise?"

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 Beachwood Drive.

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:
1. Communications
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 typical!

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 brush fire.

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 watershed.

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.


The Archive:
The Volunteers|Era of the Horses
|Chief Engineers |History of the Black Firemen
|Fire Apparatus |Fire Boats|Famous Fires
|The Last Alarm

Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved.