Los Angeles Fire Department
November 6, 1961
The Bel Air Brush Fire
BEL-AIR--BRENTWOOD AND SANTA YNEZ FIRES
OFFICIAL REPORT OF THE LOS ANGELES
As this great fire gained in intensity, a second blaze was criminally ignited in Benedict Canyon which lies a mile to the east of Stone Canyon. Fortunately, air tankers successfully extinguished this fire while it was still incipient.
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.
The Bel Air-Brentwood area that suffered such terrible havoc is unique in one outstanding particular. There exists in no other fire protection jurisdiction in the world a brush-covered region having such a concentration of valuable structures. Situated along the canyon floors and on narrow tortuous streets atop the ridges on the southerly slopes of the Santa Monica mountain range lies one of the most celebrated and desirable residential communities in the nation. Totally encompassing thousands of beautiful homes is a vast, dense growth of native brush. Reaching a height of twenty-five feet in places, this vegetation is the most flammable ground cover in the western hemisphere. Most of the area has not sustained a serious fire within memory.
Unfavorable weather conditions critically compounded the already severe fire danger. A prolonged drought that had lasted for years had reduced the moisture content of the brush to almost nil. Hot, dry Santana winds blew from the arid northeastern deserts to diminish the humidity to a perilous level. Temperatures were unseasonably high. Only a spark was required to precipitate the ravening scourge into the canyons and across the ridges.
Prevailing structural conditions in the area served in various ways to accelerate the spread of fire. Shingle and shake roofs predominate. Subjected to fire, they ignite readily to destroy the structure beneath. Moreover, these roofs send flaming pieces of wood into the air to drop on other roofs and into the brush, propagating innumerable new fires. Wide picture windows often crumble under the onslaught of the heat and pressure generated in the path of a rampant brush fire. Large, over-hanging, and unprotected eaves furnish a regrettably convenient lodging place for flying embers and super-heated air.
It is manifestly evident that the freedom in structural design permissible in other less hazardous locations in the city does, in specific and predictable ways, augment the fire peril in areas such as Bel Air and Brentwood. Fire protection agencies invariably find extinguishment problems seriously aggravated by many of these architectural invitations to disaster.
All the facilities of the Los Angeles Fire Department were thrown into the battle to arrest the flaming progress of this conflagration. During the period of greatest intensity, 85% of all available city fire fighting equipment was committed to operations in the region. Apparatus from neighboring municipalities which surround Los Angeles filled key stations to respond to other fires in the city. Some of these units performed indispensable fire fighting tasks in the more urban sections.
An immense array of fire fighting forces composed of the municipal department and allied agencies; myriad outside fire departments and organizations -- all worked relentlessly to halt the advance of the fire, to protect life, and to preserve property. Not one life was lost, nor was a single serious injury sustained. That property loss was considerable is a testament only to the severity of the fire and to the number and degree of exposures occasioned by the heavily developed residential sections that lay in the path of this great inferno.
Overtaxed segments of the water system at some of the higher elevations; narrow,
winding roadways; impaired visibility; overloaded communications; and the precipitous
terrain precluded the effective protection of many homes as the fire increased in power
and magnitude. In view of the extremely adverse conditions of weather, topography,
accessibility, and the prevalence of conflagration-breeding structural practices; it is
truly remarkable that the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire was effectually contained on the
southern, western, and eastern perimeters within twelve hours of the receipt of the first
alarm. Only with the utmost coordination of all fire-fighting facilities was this
In this report, the Santa Ynez Fire which had sprung up near Topanga Canyon occupies a secondary position of importance. This is not because that fire was less extensive or less threatening than the Bel Air-Brentwood conflagration. To the contrary, the Santa Ynez fire eventually far surpassed the Bel Air-Brentwood fire in area burned and, if not checked, might have caused greater property loss than that insensate destroyer. Inasmuch as the Los Angeles Fire Department was engaged in an immediate and urgent struggle to alleviate calamitous property damage attending the Bel Air-Brentwood fire, this account will treat the Santa Ynez Fire largely as a complicating factor in the control of the more destructive Bel Air-Brentwood emergency.
The underlying causes for the extensive damage resulting from this fire have been long recognized by all fire protection authorities. Continuing efforts have been made to secure legislation to restrict and control building practices that create severe conflagration hazards. The removal of dense brush from lands adjacent to improved properties and the planting of less combustible ground covers is essential. Fire-fighting operations would be greatly enhanced by improvements in accessibility. Water supply problems on high ridges can be mitigated to a considerable extent. Radio communication facilities must be able to accommodate the increased traffic loads that occur in such periods of major emergency. Success in solving these and similar problems will tend to reduce the threat of disastrous fires in such areas as Bel Air and Brentwood.
It is not possible to assess the total material damage that is attributable to this fire even at this time. The coming winter months must be viewed with apprehension. Torrential rains may wreak further havoc. Steep slopes, denuded of natural ground cover, offer little resistance to erosion and can loose cascades of water and mud into the lower canyons to add to the losses caused by the more direct effects of the fire. Re-seeding of the barren areas has been completed. However, this cannot be regarded as a panacea. The advent of really heavy rainfall could render these efforts fruitless even though germination of the seed had begun. Other emergency measures are indicated and are being undertaken. Every possible means is being utilized to forestall any further property damage in the fire area.
The fire department was well aware of the danger. At 8:30 a.m. that morning, all departmental levels had been alerted over the teletype system that a "High Hazard" condition existed throughout the 135 square miles of mountainous brush regions of the city. This announcement immediately placed into effect standard procedures directed toward early mobilization of maximum forces to meet any out-break of fire. Then, at 8:15 a.m a reported brush fire caused the worst fears of the department to be realized.
With the fire flaring up the northern slope, the entire department was rapidly deployed to undertake a battle of tremendous proportions. What had begun as a brush fire soon developed into a widespread conflagration consuming hundreds of homes at once. Tactical operations were forced to shift from watershed to structural fire fighting. As the fire hurtled into the Bel Air and Brentwood residential districts, companies were committed to fluid tactics in the endeavor to save as many homes as possible. At times, burning structures had to be abandoned in order that other threatened, but uninvolved, homes might be saved. Thus, the number of new fires was kept to a minimum by reducing the total fire volume resulting from the deadly barrage of flying brands. Every available apparatus and every available fire fighter was engaged in these operations.
During the period of greatest intensity of the Bel Air-Brentwood fire, the Santa Ynez fire sprang up near the summit ridge in city territory far to the west. From a point of origin just to the south of Mulholland Drive, it burned in a south-easterly direction. It spread to devour 1,160 acres of county watershed and eventually consumed 8,560 acres of city brush lands. The two fires burned a total of 15,810 acres before they were controlled. This exceeds the watershed areas destroyed by fire in the city for the last ten years.
The Santa Ynez fire caused no loss of improved properties within the city. Nine buildings were lost in the county portion of the burn. Assignment of city apparatus and manpower to this fire was made at a time when they could not be readily spared.
The precise cause for the Bel Air-Brentwood fire is undetermined. Fire department investigators believe that the cause was accidental and not incendiary. The incipient fire in the Benedict Canyon area was maliciously ignited and a suspect is in custody. The origin of the Santa Ynez fire was from an unknown cause and investigations are continuing. It is recorded as being suspicious.
Both the Bel Air-Brentwood fire and the Santa Ynez fire originated in the city of Los Angeles and were under the jurisdiction of the municipal fire department. The Los Angeles County Fire Department assumed control of operations on the Santa Ynez fire. The western portion of this fire was primarily in county territory. The major areas were in the city. The populated Topanga Canyon area was successfully protected from the western extension of the fire. The city fire department carried out extensive backfiring operations on the eastern and northern limits to effect containment in these sectors. Tractors were widely used in tactical operations.
DESCRIPTION OF TERRAIN
In the fire area these slopes descend into the San Fernando Valley on the north and into West Los Angeles and Pacific Palisades on the south. Following the summit ridge in the city is Mulholland Drive. Numerous canyon and ridge roads extend down the slopes to the north and south from Mulholland Drive. Some, but not all, of these roads connect with Sunset Boulevard which parallels the foothills on the south, and with Ventura Boulevard which follows along the base of the foothills to the north.
Several of the larger canyons serve as main traffic arteries connecting the San Fernando Valley with West Los Angeles. Thousands of motorists travel these routes daily between their homes and places of employment. Some of the smaller canyon roads join Mulholland Drive with the valley floors, but are not main thoroughfares. Many roads rise into the canyons to either terminate in sharply rising draws or twist out onto dead-end ridges.
Characteristic of these ridge and canyon areas is the lack of interconnecting crossroads between one canyon or ridge to the next. A common situation is one in which a ridge road is literally a stone's throw from the canyon street below, but can be reached only by an indirect route requiring a tem minute drive under nonemergency conditions.
In the Bel Air and Brentwood communities there are many steep, winding, and extremely narrow dead-end streets. A considerable number of these are private roadways that give access to a small group of dwellings situated in cul-de-sacs off the main canyons. There are frequently no identification signs on these streets.
Along the roads that meander through the canyon floors and climb out onto the ridges, thousands of expensive homes are attractively nestled in the midst of an enormous sea of some of the most combustible ground cover in the world. The value of these dwellings ranges between $35,000 and $700,000.
The native vegetation grows rankly to entirely submerge the rugged terrain of
these mountains. Brush growth varies from tall grass around the edges through low,
moderate brush to thick, almost forested areas of scrub oak and heavy chaparral. Heights
of this vegetation often exceeds 25 feet. The Bel Air-Brentwood and the Santa Ynez fire
areas contained the moderate to heavy types of growth. Included are most of the basic
species of chaparral which are found throughout Southern California. Among these are
Laurel Sumac, Ceanothus -- commonly called Mountain Lilac, Lemonade Berry, California
Holly, Wild Buckwheat, Black Sage, Scrub Oak, and some Live Oak. In numerous areas,
especially on the older estates in the foothills, cultured groves of Eucalyptus trees
present a potential of small-scale forest fires.
On that fateful Monday morning, all of this brush was excessively dry. Prior to the fire, the moisture of all vegetation had been drastically lowered by a prolonged period of heat, winds, and low humidity. There was present, however, the characteristically high oil content which further serves to increase the rate of combustion. This oil is a common component of most of the vegetation. Compared to forested regions, the duff in the area was not heavy. Nonetheless, there were moderate amounts in the canyon bottoms. There were also large quantities of dead wood throughout the areas that had accumulated over many fireless seasons. Moreover, the brush passes into a dormant state during the summer. In this manner, the vegetation can survive the hot, arid summer and fall months. This process naturally increases flammability.
In spite of the diligent and continuous efforts of the fire department to secure adequate brush clearance around structures, many homes are insufficiently separated from the surrounding thickets. Resistance to brush removal is sometimes engendered by a very real concern of the property owners that erosion damage may result from denuding of hillsides. Others wish to retain the natural vegetation for esthetic reasons. Perhaps most important is the inability of many people to conceive the degree of exposure to which their homes will be subjected in a raging, uncontrolled brush fire.
The ground cover in the Bel Air-Brentwood and the Santa Ynez fire areas is identical. There are certain topographic differences that have a profound bearing upon fire fighting strategy. Whereas the Santa Ynez area is largely primitive with improved properties generally confined to the perimeters; the Bel Air and Brentwood sections contain extensive areas of residential development. Also, except for a few fire roads, the Santa Ynez area is inaccessible to fire apparatus.
The uneven terrain in the fire areas makes foot travel arduous and hazardous. Firemen, working off roadways, firebreaks, and trails, must exercise prudence in the selection of routes and locations when in the vicinity of a fire. Steep slopes, cliffs, loose rocks, and brush density make operations on foot in the van of a fast-moving brush fire almost suicidal at times.
There are 95 engine companies and 36 ladder-truck companies in regular service. Department pumping apparatus are in the 1,000 to 1,250 GPM class and are equipped with tanks of 200 to 400 gallon capacities. Thirty of the two-piece engine companies have high-pressure hose wagons as second apparatus. Each of these wagons has two booster pumps of 150 GPM capability each and carries 400 gallons of water. Fifteen two-piece companies operate with two pumpers.
There are sixteen companies which normally respond with a pumper and a tank wagon. These tank wagons carry from 350 to 700 gallons of water. All are located in stations adjacent to brush areas. Ten other companies have auxiliary booster tank apparatus, each with a capacity of 400 gallons.
At each of the two Mountain Patrol quarters is a 1,000 gallon tank wagon. A 2,500 gallon tanker responds from the Van Nuys Airport to major brush fires. Mountain Patrolmen utilize eleven patrol pickup trucks equipped with small booster pumps and tanks containing approximately 150 gallons of water. Supplementing these units are various other types such as squad companies and heavy utility apparatus.
The department maintains ten reserve pumpers with full complements of hose and fittings. These units are ready to be manned when a major emergency occurs. Provisions are also made for the splitting of two-piece engine companies by adjustments of personnel assignments and the recall of off-duty members. This creates two effective companies in the place of one. A hose carrier fully loaded with 1,000 feet of 3 1/2 inch hose is available. Another carrier is prepared to respond with 1" and 1 1/2" hose.
The protection of all brush lands within the city are under the direct supervision of the Mountain Patrol Division of the fire department. This division is responsible for fire laws throughout the mountainous watershed areas. Perimeter companies cooperate in fire prevention activities by conducting inspections of improved properties in many brush localities. At the two Mountain Patrol stations on Mulholland Drive there are quartered road grading machinery and tractors. Mountain Patrol has constructed and maintains over one hundred miles of fire roads. An even greater amount of fire breaks is maintained. Nearly one-third of the total area of the city is mountainous brush regions. The area served by the entire fire department is 457.9 square miles and the population at the time of the last census was 2,537,000.
Informal, but extremely effective, mutual aid agreements exist with the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the departments of the neighboring municipalities that surround the city. The U.S. Forestry Service and the California Division of Forestry sends valuable assistance in watershed fires. Air tankers are procured through arrangements with the U.S. Forestry Service. Additional manpower for ground operations at brush fires can be obtained from county juvenile camps and from the various military services. Civil Defense fire apparatus are acquired through the facilities of the State level of the organization. Many agencies, both public and private, furnish direct and indirect support at large fire emergencies.
During those periods when weather conditions create a severe brush fire danger, a standard procedure of the fire department is placed into effect. A "High Hazard" condition is declared to exist and this information is transmitted throughout all echelons of the department. The entire organization is placed on alert. Pre-selected companies are moved into quarters in closer proximity to the brush areas to augment the initial striking force against any incipient fire. The number of engine companies normally dispatched on a first alarm to brush fires is doubled. All Mountain Patrolmen are released from inspection duties to undertake patrolling activities. Throughout the city, all company fire prevention inspections are cancelled. Training sessions which require companies to be absent from quarters are curtailed. Fire-fighting personnel remain in working uniforms. Preliminary measures are educed preparatory to the splitting of two-piece engine companies. Plans for the activation of loaded reserve apparatus are formulated should this procedure become necessary. Manpower details that reduce unit strength are restricted.
At the time a large fire is proclaimed to be a "Major Emergency", all
levels of the department are rapidly deployed to cope with the exigency. Standardized, but
flexible, emergency operating procedures guide the diverse departmental groups in the
necessary mobilization of forces, equipment, supplies, and services. Field and
Headquarters command functions are organized and subordinate command responsibilities are
delineated. Companies are split and manned as the need arises. Off-duty personnel are
recalled in requisite numbers. Reserve apparatus are placed on duty with full crews.
Police and medical assistance is summoned in amounts consistent with the demands of the emergency. Public utility agencies are notified to respond to aid in fire operations by maintaining and increasing essential water, electrical, and telephone services; and by controlling the natural gas hazard created by ruptured lines in the fire zone. Mutual aid support is called as the situation requires as are helicopters and air tankers. This entire "Major Emergency" procedure may be instituted by any company commander.
All building construction is regulated by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. The city building code is promulgated and enforced by this department. Although the code follows the format of the Uniform Building Code of the International Conference of Building Officials, it has generally more stringent requirements oriented toward regulation of specific local conditions and problems. Changes in the code are developed by the Building Department with the cooperation of the fire department, the Construction Industries Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, and the various building associations and trade groups.
Water for domestic supply and firefighting purposes is furnished through the distribution system of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. This is a municipally owned and operated agency. Water for the entire city is impounded in a vast complex of great reservoirs and holding basins which are necessary to sustain an urban population in excess of two-and-a-half million inhabitants. Almost immeasurable quantities are stored and the basic supplies available to the fire areas were plentiful at all times. In those locations where deficiencies did develop, the cause was solely the result of an inability of the distribution system in the immediate vicinity of the fire to sustain a prolonged overload that far exceeded designed capacity. Where hydrants failed, it was invariable at higher elevations at times when tremendous amounts of water were being taken from the mains at lower levels.
The Bel Air-Brentwood area is served by both a gravity flow and a pumped water system. From the San Fernando Valley on the north, large 60 and 72-inch trunk lines supply pumping stations which lift water into a number of reservoirs and tanks situated in the mountains. A 16-inch main which follows Mulholland Drive above the fire areas is fed from these storage points. From this main, 8 and 12-inch distribution mains go down into the canyons and along the ridges of the southern slope to supply the higher portions of the canyons and to assist in the maintenance of proper levels in various holding tanks. Distribution mains extend through the entire north-south length of the canyons between Mulholland Drive and Sunset Blvd. This latter thoroughfare follows the line of foothills on the southern side of the mountains. Automatic pressure regulators installed in these canyon mains balance supplies between the gravity flow from the summit and those pumped from the south.
In Stone Canyon are two reservoirs having a combined total capacity of 10,894 acre-feet. A large main goes south from these reservoirs to connect to a 36-inch supply main which follows Sunset Blvd. westerly toward Pacific Palisades near the ocean. Strategically placed pumping stations carry water from this main up into the lower canyons and ridges north of Sunset Blvd. to supply the smaller mains and holding tanks of the Bel Air and Brentwood sections. On the first day of the fire, two new pumping stations and one 16-inch main which were nearing completion were rushed into service for the first time to augment water supplies.
The distribution system within the Bel Air-Brentwood area is not a gridded system such as is conventionally found in residential sections in the more level urban portions of the city. The precipitous terrain and the lack of interconnecting roadways has precluded the development of desirable lateral tie lines to this time. To help ally this deficiency, tanks of large capacity are placed in a number of locations to support heavy, temporary consumption at the higher elevations. The system is designed to accommodate a four-hour period of maximum capacity delivery. This amount of water is deemed sufficient to combat a brush fire; a fire involving several dwellings; or even a localized group fire. That it was not equal to the demands of a widespread conflagration is understandable. No water system in the world is capable of delivering 100% of designed capacity for an infinite period.
For example, there are forty-six hydrants in Mandeville Canyon. The National Board of Fire Underwriters require that an isolated flow of 1,000 gallons per minute be obtainable from each of these hydrants. If all of the hydrants were used at once, a flow of 46,000 gallons per minute would be necessary to supply the demand. That this amount could be obtained from a single ungridded distribution main is highly unlikely.
During the course of the fire, water usage in the area reached unprecedented levels. Total consumption through the first two days was 77,500,000 gallons. This represents an increase of 35,000,000 gallons over normal consumption during a like period. Peak use at the apex of fire operations exceeded 50,000 gallons per minute. Required fire flow for the entire fire area, based on N.B.F.U. standards for localities with comparable population densities, would be 6,100 gallons per minute for a maximum period of ten hours. A total amount of 3,660,000 gallons would satisfy this demand. The actual amounts delivered in the fire area for firefighting purposes was nearly ten times this standard. Moreover, the rate of water usage far exceeded the N.B.F.U. requirements of 12,000 gallons per minute for a first industrial area fire and 8,000 gallons per minute for a second fire. This would total 20,000 gallons per minute, an amount somewhat less than the 50,000 gallons per minute actually used at the peak of the fire.
An aggravating situation that contributed to the water problem was the extensive drain that was occasioned by sheer waste. There was a considerable "panic" use of water by alarmed citizens. Many lawn sprinklers we left running; bath tub and kitchen taps were opened; and hose bibs were gushing--all in forlorn hopes that such measures might retard the looming destruction. Countless residents, far removed from the path of the fire, spent precious supplies in the needless wetting down of their properties. It is impossible to determine the exact amounts of water that were diverted in these misguided efforts. It is certain that fire-fighters were deprived of critical quantities that would surely have been used more effectively to combat the fire.
Another factor adding to the rate of water consumption was the loss created by broken service lines in the destroyed structures. Many homes in the area have 1 1/2 inch, or larger conduits. As these were ruptured in large numbers, there was a parallel increase in loss.
To further emphasize that the water shortages that did occur were caused by a temporary demand that exceeded the capacity of local mains; only an amount equal to two percent of the total storage capacity of the two Stone Canyon reservoirs alone was used in the fire area during the first two days. In fact, most of the water used did not come from these reservoirs, but from other sources.
Much discussion has centered around the considerable amounts of water present in the numerous private swimming pools. Although these pools were utilized in several instances, most of them were of little practical use as a water source. It should be sufficient to point out that these pools must be accessible before water in appreciable amounts can be taken from them. For the most part, they occupy positions to which a pumper cannot get close enough to draft from them.
Throughout the more uninhabited areas affected by the Bel Air-Brentwood and the Santa Ynez Fires, there are scattered many redwood tanks. These hold 1,000, or more, gallons each and are maintained full at all times. Emplaced along fire roads, either singly or in groups up to four, they are used to furnish apparatus tanks with water in areas where there are no mains. Nine of these tanks were totally destroyed in the fires and a number of others suffered lesser degrees of damage.
The initial formation of the Santana winds occurs as a large, cold air mass from the polar regions of the Pacific moves south into the arid interior areas of Utah, Nevada, and eastern California. From these barren wastes, the mass travels south and south-westward, influenced by atmospheric pressure differentials between the interior areas and the reaches of the Pacific Ocean. As the currents flow across the arid deserts and into the passes and canyons of the coastal mountains, they are dried and heated. Under conditions of moderate barometric gradients, the winds funnel through the passes; compressing to increase velocities to gale force. If pressure gradients are excessive, the winds will pour directly over the mountains to strike the Los Angeles Basin a few miles south of the foothills. In such instances, great clouds of dust are raised to tinge the skies. Temperatures are raised by compressional heating as the wind currents descend to progressively lower levels.
As these winds whip through the mountains and across the surface of the coastal lowlands, every wisp of vegetation and every stick of wood is drained of any vestige of moisture. Relative humidity readings fall ominously and have been recorded as low as three and four percent.
The arrival of these winds on the coastal plain is presaged by clearing skies, starry nights, and a drop in temperatures. As the Santana begins to blow, temperatures rise and the relative humidity plummets rapidly. It is not unusual for Santana conditions to last for a week. With each passing hour, the fire danger increases.
In the Santa Monica Mountains on the morning of November sixth, the Santana
winds were ranging between 25 and 50 miles per hour with even stronger gusts. Relative
humidity had dropped to four percent and would reach a parched three percent at the Los
Angeles International Airport during the day. A fire Danger Index employed by the U.S.
Forestry Service which integrates wind velocity, temperature, and relative humidity with a
measurement of vegetation moisture indicated an extreme 98 on a scale that ranges from
zero to one hundred. This figure pertains to conditions at Mountain Patrol #1 on
Mulholland Drive which lies a short distance east of the Stone Canyon area.
Rainfall in the region is confined almost entirely to the winter months. Normal seasonal precipitation is less than eighteen inches per year. This represents averages recorded at the Los Angeles County Flood Control check point located in the Bel Air Hotel. During the past seventeen years, with the exception of two seasons (1952-53 and 1957-58), rainfall has been below normal. Registered average precipitation for the past three years has dropped below half the normal amounts to be expected in the area. From May 1, 1958 to November 6, 1961, there had been only nineteen inches of rainfall. During the calendar year of 1961, 2.87 inches had fallen to November sixth. This paucity of precipitation joined with the deleterious effects of the Santana winds to create a hazard of tremendous proportions.
On the first day of the fires, the strong winds plagued the fire-fighters until mid-afternoon. At about 3:00 p.m. they began to wane. Later that night, upslope winds developed that carried the fire northward toward Mulholland Drive at the summit. During the days that followed, the Santanas returned to the area and caused considerable concern because of the danger they posed for the fire boundaries. After the extensive back-fire operation on the Santa Ynez Fire, no further extension of the fires occurred and final extinguishment tasks proceeded without difficulty.
PROGRESS OF FIRE
The fire originated on the northern slope of the Santa Monica Mountains beyond the upper termination of Stone Canyon Avenue. This location lies approximately 3/8 of a mile below the summit of the range. The ignition was accidental and occurred beyond a street barricade on unimproved land.
Spurred by the high winds, the flames quickly reached the summit and, spotting across Mulholland Drive in dozens of places, began a wild, uncontrolled descent into Stone Canyon on the south slope. The surface winds, as they crested over the top of the range, altered from their bearing toward the southwest to curve in a curling eddy to the south and east.
The fire fanned over both walls of Stone Canyon and, with burning bits of wind-driven brush spotting in advance, rapidly engulfed the upper Stone Canyon reservoir. Any hope of containing the fire at this stage with the limited forces responding on the initial alarm was beyond the bounds of reason. The first-in units bent all of their efforts to protect the homes around the point of origin and in the vicinity of Mulholland Drive.
The first chief to arrive on the scene immediately recognized the looming probabilities attending the overpowering force of the fire. This officer requested that a "Major Emergency" plan be instituted and asked that an additional fifteen engine companies and six chief officers be dispatched without delay. A "Major Emergency" declaration was issued at 8:26 a.m. and the great commitment of fire-fighting strength began.
Incoming units were emplaced along upper Roscomare Road to undertake the
protection of the numerous homes situated there. As the fire sped on southward, it also
spread toward the east, threatening to spill over the east ridge of Stone Canyon and drive
down into the homes in Beverly Glen Canyon. Bulldozers were employed along the ridge but
were only partially successful. The fire volume was somewhat reduced by their actions.
Nonetheless, the flames surged into the canyon and advanced upon the homes along Beverly
Glen Blvd. Twenty-two engine companies were sent into the canyon from the north and south.
These units, in conjunction with very effectual support from air tankers, succeeded in
stopping this eastward movement of the fire on the west side of Beverly Glen Blvd.
As the air tankers were operating over the Beverly Glen area, a separate, incipient fire was criminally ignited 3/4 of a mile to the east in Benedict Canyon near Wanda Park Drive. The blaze was observed from the aircraft and immediate actions were taken against it Borate drops completely extinguished this fire. There was no involvement of structures although some of the homes were splattered with borate. Had this threat not been so quickly removed, it may well have greatly increased the property loss sustained during the day.
Below the southern limits of the fire in Stone Canyon, sector commanders endeavored to contain the extension of the fire toward the populous Bel Air district. Indications were that the fire would continue on south down Stone Canyon. Equipment was deployed along Stradella Road above the west wall of Stone Canyon to protect the homes there. Other units were thrust across the canyon to intercept the head of the fire which was forging down the canyon. However, wind-driven bits of burning vegetation were spotting many new fires far ahead of the main front. Firemen, straddling the path of the flames, soon found the fire to their backs. As the fire raged on southward toward Bel Air, it spotted to the west across Roscomare Road near the confluence of that street with Stradella Road and Linda Flora Drive. This extension involved the east wall of Hog Canyon and threatened the many residents along Linda Flora Drive.
Companies leap-frogged each other southward along Stradella Road and Linda Flora Drive to undertake the protection of homes newly-threatened by the burning brush on the canyon walls. Literally hundreds of structures were successfully defended by these tactics. In spite of the valiant efforts made by the fire fighters however, the fire out-distanced them and houses begun to ignite along Stradella Road far in advance of the desperately-working units.
As greater numbers of homes became involved, increasing amounts of glowing shingles and shakes were sent aloft. In a short time, houses on Roscomare Road were aflame. In some places, smoke reduced visibility to a few yards.
Unlike the flying brush brands which are often consumed before rising to great heights; the flat wood roofing materials soared to higher altitudes carried by strong vertical drafts. Whereas the surface winds were being bent to the south and east as they passed over the summit ridge to carry the fire toward Bel Air and Beverly Glen Canyon, the winds aloft maintained the prevailing southwesterly course. The denser brands rose into this upper wind strata and were carried to the southwest in great profusion. New fires were ignited in the brush and among structures at great distances, at times spanning two and three canyons.
The fire clawed into the upper regions of Bel Air on a wide front. Flames were consuming fuel at a rate in excess of thirteen acres to the minute. Whole block-long sections of houses were soon blazing. In places, homes were fully involved before the surrounding brush had even begun to burn, indicating that ignition was resulting from flying brands landing on combustible roofs or, to a lesser degree, from exposure to adjacent burning structures.
Thus the fire was no longer primarily a brush fire, but rather a widespread structural conflagration consuming hundreds of beautiful homes. Fire units fought to same as many houses as possible. There were many more structures on fire at this time than there were apparatus available to undertake operations. Hampered in their efforts by overtaxed radio communications, poor accessibility, and a dearth of water at some of the higher elevations, companies desperately sought to select areas in which their actions would gain the greatest advantage in the restriction of fire travel and preserve the largest number of structures.
There was no contiguous fire boundary. Instead, there were scores of large fires scattered over a wide area, each sending thousands of brands into the air to swarm out to ravage new sections. In some localities great pyres formed to send pillars of flames converging into the skies. This was especially true on ridge tops where the flames swept up to groups of houses from as many as three sides.
Shortly after noon, flying brands, carried by the upper strata winds, hurdled the San Diego Freeway in Sepulveda Canyon. Numerous fires were started on the west wall of that canyon and on the hillsides beyond. The conflagration now approached the campus of Mt. St. Mary's College and the exclusive residential community of Brentwood. A rapid re-deployment of apparatus and manpower was made to counter this menace.
At 12:56 p.m., a new and completely separate fire was observed to erupt by the Topanga Tower lookout. This new blaze was ignited from an unknown cause and was situated just to the south of Mulholland Drive near the Santa Maria Fire Road. This fire originated on city territory and an initial response of three companies was dispatched. The hard-pressed fire department unhesitatingly gave equipment it could ill afford to spare at the most crucial moment of the original fire. This new fire was subsequently named the Santa Ynez Fire. The county fire department assumed primary responsibility for combating this fire during the early stages. This was of tremendous benefit to the city fire department which was already so heavily committed to the Bel Air-Brentwood operations. The county fire department energetically attacked the western flank of the Santa Ynez Fire to halt its progress toward the populated Topanga Canyon area wherein there lies a considerable amount of improved properties. Efforts to prevent a northward extension over Mulholland Drive were also undertaken successfully.
The Bel Air conflagration now assaulted the Brentwood district with great force. The same fire-fighting tactics continued that had begun in Bel Air. Herculean efforts were expended to save the structures. Buildings on the grounds of Mt. St. Mary's College became involved and units worked to exhaustion to save this multi-million dollar installation. They were largely successful, saving all except two of the many structures.
At 3:00 p.m., the fire-fighting forces received an assist from the weather. The velocity of the winds diminished considerably. The extreme western flank of the fire was roughly along Kenter Avenue, stretching to the northwest, before 5:00 p.m. From here, the flames began a descent into Mandeville Canyon.
Seizing the opportunity presented by the slackening winds and the favorable topography within Mandeville Canyon, the fire command swiftly concentrated more than fifty engine companies in the canyon. Aided by an adequate water supply, the units let the brush burn down the slope to the houses and then protected these. No homes were lost. The fire did leap across to the west wall of the canyon, but this was confined along the west Mandeville Fire Road atop the ridge by the coordinated efforts of engine companies and bulldozers. The westward and southward travel of the fire was arrested at about 8:00 p.m. on the first day.
As the strong northeasterly winds died during the evening, moderate breezes began to flow upslope from the southwest. This had the effect of carrying the fire northward up the canyons toward Mulholland Drive. This movement lacked the intensity that had attended the original southerly travel, but it poised a threat nonetheless. On the morning of November 7th, air tankers carried out extensive drops on this northward extension. Bulldozers worked in concert with these drops and ground crews mopped up. Limited backfiring was also utilized. Apparatus was emplaced south of Mulholland Drive to the east of Sepulveda to protect homes from this northward travel of the fire. Borate drops were also made in this area. At 4:00 a.m. on November 8th, this fire was effectively controlled.
From the time of inception, the Santa Ynez Fire burned in a southeasterly direction. Advancing through uninhabited and inaccessible lands, it destroyed far more watershed than did the Bel Air Brentwood Fire. It was prevented from crossing over Mulholland Drive on the summit to involve the northern slope of the range. Bulldozers were employed generously on all flanks of the fire. Ground crews were much more extensively used because of the nature of the terrain. Apparatus use was limited to those few areas to which access could be gained. Air tankers also aided in the operations. The southern extension of the fire was halted above the Pacific Palisades residential area. If this containment had not been effected, it is possible that another structure conflagration might have been imposed to further tax the already overextended and weary fire forces.
The Santa Ynez Fire was contained on the eastern and northern flanks by the use of bulldozers and an exceedingly large backfire operation. This backfire was made from the Sullivan Fire Road westerly into Rustic Canyon between Mulholland Drive between Sullivan Fire Road and a point 3/4 of a mile to the west. This was a true watershed fire in a primitive region containing few structures. All buildings within the city were successfully defended.
Patrolling and cold-trailing operations were carried on until both fires were completely and thoroughly extinguished.
Within minutes of the declaration of the existence of a "Major Emergency," a Headquarters Command was established on the order of the Administrative Deputy Chief at the central offices of the fire department located in downtown Los Angeles. The function of this Headquarters Command was primarily to furnish logistical support to the field forces engaged at the fires. Personnel were assigned to the fire zone and the manning of strategically located stations throughout the city with reduced forces was supervised. Relief of personnel was arranged as requests came from the command posts. Transportation facilities of the Fire Prevention Bureau were utilized to move fire-fighters to and from the scene of the emergency. Administrative liaison was maintained with other city departments, outside agencies, the Mayor's and Councilmanic Officers, and with the Board of Fire Commissioners. All routine departmental operations were managed, including all emergencies exclusive of the fires in the Bel Air-Brentwood and the Santa Ynez areas.
As the fire in Stone Canyon was lancing toward Bel Air, a second command post was installed at the quarters of Engine Co. 71, located at Sunset and Beverly Glen Blvds. From this point, tactical operations were directed against the southern and eastern flanks of the fire. This station was designated Command Post #2. As the eastern spread of the fire was contained in Beverly Glen Canyon and the conflagration moved further west into the Brentwood section, this command post was advanced to the quarters of Engine Co. 19 on Sunset Blvd. about a mile west of Sepulveda Blvd. This placed the tactical control at a position more proximate to the head of the fire. The facilities remaining at Engine Co. 71 assumed the responsibilities of a relieving center. From here, fire-fighting forces and equipment were sent to the various command posts and limited dispatch of units to flare-ups in the burned southeastern areas was carried out. It was from Command Post #2 at Engine Co. 19 that fifty engine companies were sent into Mandeville Canyon to undertake the containment operations that effectively halted the head of the fire and established the western perimeter along the West Mandeville Fire Road.
In mid-afternoon of the first day of the fires, a General Field Headquarters was activated at Mountain Patrol #2 on the order of Chief Engineer William L. Miller. The strategic coordination and disposition of all fire-fighting forces and allied agencies was organized at this headquarters. All high-level liaison representatives were gathered here to combine their efforts to secure maximum efficiency from the many diverse forces engaged in the operations.
Command Post #3 was established in Temescal Canyon to the north of Sunset Blvd. on the morning of November seventh. This control point was activated to direct operations on the southern flank of the Santa Ynez Fire. Tactical operations of units of the Los Angeles city and county fire departments, U.S. Forestry Service, the State Division of Forestry, Civil Defense, and various outside municipal fire departments were directed from this location.
A fourth command post was set up by the county fire department in Topanga Canyon near the juncture of the old Topanga Road and Topanga Canyon Blvd. Operations on the westerly limits of the Santa Ynez Fire were supervised from this control point.
All of the command posts within city territory functioned under the control of the General Field Headquarters subsequent to the establishment of this strategic center. The command posts directed tactical fire-fighting operations, arranged for the relief and reassignment of units, fed personnel, supplied fuel and provided field mechanical and radio repairs for apparatus and procured medical assistance for injured fire-fighters within the respective command areas.
The "B" Platoon of the city fire department was on duty on the morning of November sixth. Personnel were recalled to augment this force in three separate phases. To satisfy the manpower needs created by the "Major Emergency" declaration, 318 men were initially recalled to man loaded reserve apparatus and "split" units. At noon, the entire "A" Platoon was placed on duty. This increased the effective strength by 761 men. At 8:00 a.m. on November seventh, a total recall was instituted to supply 912 additional firefighters.
Combined forces under the direction of the General Field Headquarters ranged from 1,200 to 2,500 men per day. There were over 200 city, county, State, and federal fire-fighting apparatus and a large number of other vehicles and equipment from outside public and private agencies which participated in the operations. Apparatus types included pumpers, tank wagons, ladder trucks, bulldozers, air tankers, helicopters, and patrol trucks. Transportation vehicles were furnished by the Fire Prevention Bureau and several outside organizations. A large array of additional specialized equipment, such as rescue, light and heavy utility, ambulance, and mechanical and radio service vehicles, was also employed. Ground crews were obtained from the county juvenile camps and from nearby military installations. At Mountain Patrol #1, the California Division of Forestry installed facilities for feeding and resting of the military personnel.
In the earliest moments of the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire, the fire department gave primary consideration to the protection of improved properties. This condition was imposed by the nature of the fire and the regions that it menaced. The first arriving units were deployed to save homes near the point of origin. As additional companies approached, they were also utilized to protect structures. Efforts to restrict the travel of the fire through the ground cover were deferred in the face of the dire threat to the homes. All of the structures along Mulholland Drive, North Stone Canyon, and upper Roscomare Roads were successfully defended.
With the arrival of greater numbers of companies, attempts were made to halt the progress of the fire and to establish boundaries, especially on the south and east. The easterly spread was stopped in Beverly Glen Canyon, but the fire thwarted all containment efforts on the south and proceeded into Bel Air.
As the fire grew in size and intensity, most units were committed to the preservations of structures. Those attacks that were made on the fire consuming the ground cover were generally incidental to the protection of homes rather than concerted attempts to restrict fire travel through the vegetation. Because of the prodigious quantities of flying brands which carried the flames past the firefighters, all such efforts were foredoomed to failure.
Although fire-fighting methods varied as differing conditions were imposed during the course of the fire, units generally tried to remain as mobile as possible. Using small lines from apparatus tanks, units would protect a single home or groups of dwellings. After the fires had been knocked down, they would quickly move to new locations to repeat these tactics. Where large quantities of water were necessary, lines were laid from hydrants. In some instances, companies drafted from accessible swimming pools. When a fire was controlled, units often retrieved their nozzles and fittings and left the hose behind in order to speedily respond to other threatened locations. In this way, the delay necessary to pick up many sections of wet 2 1/2-inch hose was avoided. Hose beds could be refilled with fresh supplies at Command Post #1 whenever convenient or necessary.
Before the involvement of large numbers of structures, companies followed standard patterns of defense. Houses were prepared prior to exposure. All combustible materials in the yards were removed from areas adjacent to the structures. Patio furniture and bamboo shades were placed inside of garages and the doors closed. Fences were torn away from the buildings. Combustible vegetation was cut back. Roofs were laddered and garden hoses were connected to hose bibs. All exterior windows and doors of the houses were closed and the lights were turned on. Lines were laid from apparatus to positions of maximum advantage.
As the flames roared toward the houses, units leap-frogged each other to defend them. These tactics were quite successful until burning shingles flew into widely separated areas to ignite great numbers of homes. When the number of burning structures grew to the point where the available apparatus could no longer cope with the fire on a house-to house basis, an operational change was ordered which offered the chance of saving the largest number of the endangered homes. Sector, and sometimes unit, commanders endeavored to select groups of houses that could be successfully defended in the van of the fire. Houses that were already heavily involved were by-passed to avoid squandering forces in hopeless efforts when every man and apparatus was necessary to protect hundreds of menaced and newly-involved homes.
Structural fire-fighting continued to dominate the activities of all units until the afternoon hours. At that time, the winds began to abate and a concentrated effort was made to seal the head of the fire. The containment was successfully accomplished, but only after an exhausting see-saw battle that lasted into the night hours.
During the course of both fires, bulldozers performed indispensable services. They worked the brush areas to widen fire breaks and roads. Ridges were cleared in threatened locations. Breaks were cut around homes situated near the heads of canyons and many were thus saved. Until the fires were under control, they worked in close coordination with air tankers on the flanks of the fires.
Tractors contributed greatly to the success of the containment effected on the western limits of the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire. Even before the high winds had begun to subside, they were busy widening the West Mandeville Fire Road in preparation for a stand to be made in that location. As the fire struck, they continued to work the brush in conjunction with engine companies and ground crews. Later, as the fire moved northward with the upslope winds, these bulldozers labored on that flank until containment was also established there.
A much more extensive use of bulldozers was made on the Santa Ynez Fire. Because of the lack of accessibility, there were many areas where fire apparatus could not go. The county fire department used tractors extensively on the western reaches of the fire to prevent extension into the Topanga Canyon area. Along the southern perimeter the City Fire Department used bulldozers between the East Topanga Fire Road and the Rustic Canyon ridge. They widened the Sullivan Fire Road and a portion of Mulholland Drive to prepare for the massive backfiring operation on the western and northern flanks.
Following the containment of both fires, the big blades were pushed through the vegetation along the perimeters of the burned areas to cold-trail and reduce residual hot spots. Three city fire department bulldozers were used throughout the emergency. The county fire department used one machine on the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire and nine on the Santa Ynez Fire. Numerous tractors were secured from private contractors on an emergency basis by the city fire department to aid in the operations.
Eleven minutes after the outbreak of the fire in Stone Canyon, a request for air tankers was placed. The first of these came from the Van Nuys Airport. A second aircraft was unable to respond from this location immediately because it was undergoing mechanical repairs. It was airborne one hour later. A total of sixteen air tankers worked on both fires. The largest number were dispatched from Chino. Others came from Goleta, Hemet, and Carpinteria.
The decision to use these aircraft over and near to populated areas was based on a weighty calculation of the risks involved. Air tankers must necessarily make their runs at low altitudes, over treacherous terrain, subjected to unpredictable wind and thermal currents. Visibility is often obscured by smoke and several tankers may be flying within a limited zone. It is a hazardous undertaking for pilots and aircraft in every case. When drops are being made in and around urban regions, the dangers are multiplied because people on the ground may suffer in any mishap. Little imagination is required to foresee the consequences of a disabled B-17, for instance, crashing into a suburban area--perhaps to skid flaming into a school or hospital as an ultimate destination.
Borate drops constitute a further peril to persons on the ground in the operational area. Should anyone be struck directly by one of these loads, it is all too likely that serious or fatal injuries would be sustained. In view of such forbidding possibilities, the Federal Aviation Agency does not condone the employment of these aircraft over heavily inhabited regions. Certainly, the fire department would not consider the promiscuous use of air tankers under such conditions.
The wealth of highly laudatory publicity that air tankers received following the Bel Air-Brentwood and Santa Ynez Fires has lent to them an aura of fire-quenching invincibility. Such a conception of the nature of the work done by these aircraft is completely unwarranted. Far from being a total solution to every major brush fire problem, they are buy one of the many tools which may be used. Within their limitations, they perform valuable services which are usually made in support and in concert with ground operations. That they can undertake missions independent of cooperative ground actions to score miraculous victories over large, fast-moving brush fires is contrary to demonstrated fact.
First of all, effective operations are subject to definite limiting factors. Dense concentrations of smoke that hide the target area from the pilot make accurate drops largely a matter of chance. Strong convection currents in the vicinity of a massive fire often scatter the drops. Proper timing in discharging the load carried is not always possible. For these reasons, and because a really violent and broad fire front is likely to be little affected by the amounts of borate carried in tankers, air operations against the head of a large fire will be ineffectual.
Only after carefully balancing the considerable hazards against the advantages to be gained by the use of air tankers was it decided to call upon these valuable firefighting tools. The work done by the tankers during the emergency proved to be very helpful in the battle for containment. Drops were made in most sectors during the course of both fires. The aircraft often coordinated their work with that of the bulldozers to help seal the perimeters. Structural, as well as watershed, targets were attacked with generally good results. Even though well-developed structure fires were not extinguished by air drops, they were often subdued to the point where personnel on the ground could gain control and better defend adjacent buildings. The extinguishment of the incipient fire in Benedict Canyon is an example of unusual independent action of air tankers. This fire, which could have become an additional source of destruction, was quelled without ground support while it was still small. The value of this action cannot be over-estimated.
Air-ground radio communications difficulties during the early stages of the emergency interfered with the efficiency of flight operations. The tankers based at the Van Nuys Airport are equipped to communicate on a fire department frequency. However, the congestion of traffic made reception impossible. Aircraft from more distant bases had no means to communicate on the fire department frequencies. The placing of a portable transceiver aboard one of the lead planes failed to solve this problem. At one point, it even proved necessary to relay a message through the Forestry Service Dispatcher in Arcadia to have the tankers undertake a mission. During the afternoon of the first day, Forestry Service personnel installed a ground control station on the fire scene to operate on the Forestry Air Net frequency. This partially relieved the communications problem during the remainder of the emergency.
In the final analysis, air tankers were profitably used as one of the several weapons to combat the fires. That an even greater number of tankers could have materially altered the course of the conflagration is a baseless assumption. An extensively wide front developed almost from the outset and with the excessive spotting of new blazes beyond the main fire, control resulting from any amount of air tanker actions was not likely. Had a hundred tankers been used, the fire probably would have followed much the same course that it did. Moreover, an increase in the number of aircraft over the area would have imposed a disproportionate enlargement of the hazard to them and to the populated sections of the city over which they flew.
At the present time, the fire department is totally dependent upon a leasing arrangement to secure helicopter service at large emergencies. This has proved to be a completely unsatisfactory situation. A helicopter was ordered immediately after the outbreak of the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire. It was unavailable because it was undergoing mechanical repairs. Next, the police department helicopter was requested. It was also out of service for similar reasons.
For a brief period, a private helicopter, employed by a local radio station, was utilized by a chief officer to reconnoiter and direct operations. A county helicopter responded and was used until about 1:00 p.m. It was then dispatched to the Santa Ynez Fire under the control of the county fire department. A leased machine was available at 2:30 p.m. until nightfall. Major structural loss had already occurred in the Bel Air and Brentwood areas.
As with the air tankers, radio communications with the helicopters was a factor that further hampered operations. Small portable transceivers were carried aloft for command use. Lacking an outside antenna, these sets do not possess sufficient signal strength to be reliable instruments for the transmission of command traffic.
Helicopters are invaluable command and reconnaissance tools at large brush fires. In spite of the difficulties encountered because of procurement and communications problems during the first day of the fire, helicopters performed many beneficial services.
Backfiring tactics were seldom employed on the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire. Only firing-out operations of a very limited nature were used in small delineated areas. In contrast, the Santa Ynez Fire was contained on the long eastern flank and along a section of the northern flank through the ignition of an extensive backfire. This operation was entirely successful.
Ground crews performed supplemental fire-fighting tasks during the course of the fires. Generally, their activities were limited to operations in the watershed areas which were largely inaccessible to apparatus. After containment was effected, these crews extinguished spot fires, coldtrailed the perimeters bounded by vegetation, and patrolled.
During the twelve hours that followed the initial alarm to Stone Canyon, 124 city fire department engines and 23 tank units were committed to the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire. Twenty-three engines remained in quarters to protect the other areas of the city. These were supplemented by thirty-two outside municipal engine companies which occupied strategic city stations and responded to local fires. Seven other outside municipal engines also worked on the fire in Bel Air and Brentwood.
The county fire department sent sixteen engines, six patrol pumpers, and six camp crews to aid in the battle against the conflagration. The military forces supplied 250 men for ground operations. The State arranged for the dispatch of twenty-five Civil Defense pumpers to the scene. Federal and State Forestry apparatus also responded.
As the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire was overcome, progressively larger assignments of equipment and manpower were transferred to the Santa Ynez fire. There were one hundred engine units engaged on the latter fire during the most active stage. Though many units were never committed to actual operations because of the lack of accessibility, it was imperative that they be held in immediate readiness in the event that the fire should proceed from the primitive areas into the populated districts. The two command posts at the Santa Ynez Fire supervised the feeding and tactical disposition of these units. Outside aid units were systematically released as the fire was controlled.
In accordance with "Emergency Operating Procedures" requirements, all bureaus of the fire department supported suppression activities of the fires. The Fire Prevention Bureau provided technical assistance, transportation for personnel and supplies, patrol services, and performed investigative duties during and subsequent to the fires. Two chief officers performed staff duties in the operation of motor pools until they were assigned to sectors in command of arriving fire companies. At the culmination of the fires, the Fire Prevention Bureau embarked upon a painstaking survey of the entire fire area to develop complete statistical data relating to structural damage sustained.
The Bureau of Supply and Maintenance was responsible for furnishing needed equipment, repairing apparatus, installing and maintaining radio communications facilities, feeding of personnel, and supplying oxygen therapy equipment for medical purposes. A rapid expansion of normal operations was required. Three pumpers and four Mountain Patrol trucks that were in the Shops for minor repairs were quickly restored to an operable condition and returned to service. At Mountain Patrol #2, a supply point was established to replenish depleted hose and fitting complements of apparatus. Automotive and radio mechanics were active in the field to maintain apparatus in service at the emergency.
The Training Section of the Personnel and Training Bureau provided personnel to operate the apparatus and manpower pools at the various command posts. These men also acted as aides of the officers in charge at these locations; keeping records of unit assignments, fuel requirements, feeding schedules, and related information. They further aided in the dispatch of companies and arranging for reliefs of personnel.
The Medical Liaison Unit dispatched members with a receiving hospital surgeon. Numerous minor injuries sustained by fire-fighting personnel were treated. Approximately two hundred men were given medical attention at the scene.
Under the direction of the Bureau of Building and Sites the Hydrant Office worked with the Water Distribution Division of the Department of Water and Power to augment water supplies where possible. Maps and Drafting furnished more than 560 maps of the fire areas for use of the forces at the scene. The Communications Section greatly enlarged their operations to handle the tremendous increase of telephonic and radio traffic imposed by the fires.
Many members engaged in these essential supporting tasks were, in numerous instances, called upon to participate in extinguishment duties during the most pressing moments of the conflagration. Such direct actions were responsible for saving considerable property that might have otherwise been lost.
The Los Angeles Police Department was responsible for implementing evacuation of the affected fire areas, traffic control around the perimeters and in the zone of operations, protection against looting, and restriction of access to authorized persons. These tasks were accomplished with the greatest possible efficiency and were of immeasurable assistance to the fire department. The prompt and positive reaction of the police department to each request of the fire department contributed substantially to the prevention of any fatalities throughout the emergency. Cooperation and liaison methods were ideal.
Obstacles to control during the course of the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire were
The Santa Ynez Fire was a true watershed fire involving primitive regions which
contained little structural development. It was contained at 5:00 p.m. on November ninth
and was under control at 11:00 p.m. on the same date. A huge backfire operation, the
employment of many tractors, and extensive use of air tankers characterized control
methods on this fire.
Cold-trailing and patrolling the burned areas of both of these fires continued on a constantly reducing scale until November eighteenth. At that time, the fires were thoroughly extinguished and all operations ceased.
The mutual aid system was never more severely tested, nor had a more outstanding success than during this emergency. It is not necessary to praise individual agencies here. The list is far too long. The spirit of cooperation was uniformly of the highest caliber. Human suffering and property loss would surely have been considerably greater without the tremendous assistance rendered by the many outside organizations engaged in the operations.
Wood roofing materials have a notoriously poor fire record. Six hundred and forty-eight of the larger cities in the United States have enacted ordinances either prohibiting or, as with the B.O.A.C., Southern, and National Building Codes, limiting the use of wood shingles and shakes. The basis for such legislation has been the plentiful, well-documented evidence derived from fifty-four sweeping shingle conflagrations that have occurred since the turn of the century. In these fires, a total of 20,428 buildings were destroyed. In forty-six conflagrations that have occurred during the same period without the combustible roof factor, a total loss of 2,815 structures resulted. The average wood-shingle type of conflagration has destroyed more buildings than the largest non-wood shingle type. The largest wood-shingle fire has razed more structures than all of the non-wood-shingle conflagrations combined.
Wood shingle roofs have an extremely high susceptibility to ignition and , when involved with fire, send brands soaring for distances up to three miles. In the Bel Air Fire, brands were carried to places more than one air-line mile to the southwest of the main fire travel. Firemen witnessed this occurrence in a number of instances. During a dry period and with winds exceeding thirty miles-per-hour, a wood shingle conflagration will almost certainly leap any man-made tactical fire line. For this reason, such fires are prone to become unmanageable. Fires without the flying brand factor are much more readily contained inside of definite boundaries.
All fire officials are acutely aware of the foregoing facts and of the terrible danger imposed upon areas where lavish use is made of such materials from roof coverings. The Los Angeles Fire Department has made unceasing efforts to secure laws banning or, at least, restricting the use of combustible roofing materials. To the present time, organized resistance has effectively blocked any corrective legislation.
An exhaustive survey of the burned area has recently been concluded by the Fire Prevention Bureau of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Statistical data thus obtained, when properly measured and correlated, lead to definite inescapable conclusions regarding the extent of the fire loss in the Bel Air and Brentwood areas and the causes therefore.
In this fire,there were 484 dwellings and 21 other buildings totally destroyed. Of these 505 structures, there were 382 that had wood roof coverings. This represents more than 75% of the totally razed buildings. To compare, only 58% of all the structures in the fire zone had shingle or shake roofs prior to the conflagration. Nearly 30% of these wood-roofed buildings were destroyed. Of the remaining 42% of the structures with other than wood roof coverings, less than 12% were destroyed.
Of these 2,263 buildings within the fire area, both damaged and undamaged, there were 34.5% which were exposed by flying brands. 41.2% of all of the structures within the perimeters were exposed primarily to brush. Among the dwellings which sustained any degree of damages, 66% were first ignited on the roof. This indicates that although the brush occasioned the greater exposure, the combustible roofs were the major point of ignition. It should be remembered also that the flying shakes and shingles spread fire into the brush at great distances which in turn involved more structures.
Observations of fire-fighters working on the fire and countless interrogations of witnesses give further abundant evidence that the diffusion and intensity of the fire gained massive impetus because of the presence of the many shingle roofs. Air tanker pilots related that they had observed large amounts of burning shingles and shakes at considerable altitudes and often could see houses flaming far in advance of the brush fire. A fire department chief officer flew through a barrage of brands in a helicopter. Upon landing, he found it necessary to remove charred shingles from the cockpit. It is quite obvious that the combustible roof coverings were an outstanding structural deficiency that contributed greatly to the conflagration condition.
In 1959, a survey was made by the National Fire Protection Association covering the increasing use of wood shingles in these brush areas of Los Angeles. Upon completion of the investigation, a report was published which set forth the findings. The concluding statement of this report flatly predicted that a conflagration was assured if the use of shingles continued to increase in these regions. It is indeed regrettable that greater heed was not given to this prophetic warning by those who promulgate building code regulations.
Other structural features contributed to the loss in lesser degrees. Stilted or
cantilevered houses which are built on steep slopes suffered relatively high damage.
Although only 2.8% of the total number of homes in the fire area were constructed in this
manner, 44.5% of these were either damaged or destroyed. Among the 484 totally destroyed
dwellings, large, unprotected eaves were the point of fire origin in sixty instances.
Thirteen of the leveled structures had fire enter under the floors and seven were involved
through window openings.
Structures situated on hilltops were the most vulnerable. Over 45% of the destroyed homes were set in these locations. Often the fire swept up to them on two or more sides. Percentages of loss declined progressively among the houses at the bases of hills, on the hillsides, on level ground, and was lowest in the canyons.
The largest buildings to be damaged by fire were those on campus at Mt. St. Mary's College located in the upper Brentwood area. These structures are roofed with tile. However, sparks and brands entered between the tile and the wood sheathing. Hundreds of highly flammable birds' nests occupied these hollow spaces. The nests were easily ignited to involve the sheathing and drop burning materials through cracks into the attic spaces. Proper screening of the tile at the outer edges of the roofs would have prevented this particular type of exposure. Although the nuns' quarters and Fine Arts buildings were lost, all the rest of the major structures were saved. One 2-and-3 story building was damaged, losing a portion of the top story on the northerly wing. This structure was approximately a half-block long. Hydrants in the vicinity were dry and all water used in the battle was carried in vehicular tanks. Private contractors furnished several large tank trucks to supply water. Tremendous exertions of a few firemen with several apparatus prevented this $10,000,000 college from becoming a total loss.
Naturally, the enormous brush growth was responsible for much of the structural involvement. Nearly all of the structures were exposed to brush to some extent. Nonetheless, the fire could have been much more readily controlled if only brush had been involved. It would have been possible to establish a contiguous fire line and concentrate the preponderance of fire-fighting efforts to limiting spread. With the involvement of many structures, an entirely different situation prevailed. Nearly all fire units were occupied in saving buildings while the fire was carried into ever more distant areas by flying shingle brands.
The value of adequate brush clearance around structures cannot be stressed too strongly. The degree of separation necessary depends largely upon the location of a building. A home on a ridge which overlooks a sharply rising slope will require a great deal more clearance than one which occupies a level site. 70% of the ruined homes were within fifty feet of natural vegetation. This is not intended to create the impression that all of these homes were ignited from expose to brush, but it does indicate that there were numerous instances of inadequate clearance around structures.
A number of structures outside the perimeters of the burned area were involved and sustained varying degrees of damage. These were universally ignited by airborne brands. Had all of these buildings been roofed with fire-resistive materials, most would have survived without damage.
Nearly 78% of all the homes that lie inside of the perimeters of the burn were successfully defended. In the face of a widespread structural conflagration superimposed upon a rampaging watershed fire, the tactical operations of the overtaxed forces were gratifyingly effectual.
Under a cooperative agreement between the city of Los Angeles, the Department of Conservation of the State of California, and the county of Los Angeles, helicopters have sown annual rye grass at the rate of eight pounds to the acre. Additional amounts of seed were made available to residents through property owners groups. The Los Angeles County Flood Control District has supplied in excess of 130,000 burlap bags for use in diking and diverting water. The Los Angeles Department of Public Works has placed approximately 1,300 tons of sand in strategic locations for use in these bags. Fire stations adjoining the burned areas have issued the sand bags upon requests from residents. A number of temporary debris basins and trash racks have been installed in key locations to minimize the movement of silt and rubbish.
Property owners, cognizant of the very real menace to homes that survived the fire, have planted copious amounts of new ground covers. Generally, shrub and ivies with a low degree of fire susceptibility have been used. Many new sprinkler systems to irrigate this vegetation have been constructed. Some sprinkler heads are located as far as five hundred feet from the structures.
To this time, rainfall has been moderate. Minor flooding has occurred, but damage to buildings has been relatively light. The germination of the rye grass seed has begun and green shoots are showing throughout the burned areas. However, this is not a guarantee against the effects of a really torrential rain storm. Even though normal precipitation is quite light, there are occasional prolonged periods of heavy rains in the area. The rate of regrowth of ground cover is comparatively rapid. Nonetheless, the abundance of vegetation, present before the fire occurred, will not again be restored until at least twenty years have passed. The danger of serious flooding will remain on a diminishing scale for the next five years.
Success of the preventive measures that have been taken to forestall extensive flood damage primarily depends upon whether the burned regions are subjected to excessive rainfall during the coming months. If the normal pattern of mild precipitation prevails, the efforts expended give cause for cautious optimism.
The fire department has been intensely sensitive to the mounting danger during recent years. Witnessing the constantly increasing invasion of the canyons and ridges by home builders, fire officials recognized that a unique hazard was being imposed in these regions and was becoming more acute with the passage of time. Thirty years ago, firemen battled watershed fires on these lands under many of the trying conditions that are faced today. The frequent high winds, periods of low humidities, and the vast quantities of dry vegetation were present then as they are now. The one significant change is in the amount of structural development that has taken place during the past three decades.
Brush fires occur in this city every year with almost predictable regularity. As long as masses of highly susceptible vegetation cover the landscape and the climatic cycles produce dry, windy periods, firemen will be called upon to suppress watershed fires. Whether these will again affect populated sections so devastatingly depends primarily on the actions which are now taken to remove conflagration-breeding hazards.
Relatively few structures were lost in brush fires that occurred in the distant past for the reason that people did not then live in these regions to any appreciable extent. Today, thousands of homes are surrounded by vast tracts of natural vegetation. A potential fire condition, neither wholly watershed nor structural in scope, but with the worst features of both, lies in wait to sally forth to cut a flaming swath through brush and homes.
Little corrective legislation has been promulgated to deal with the growth of this singular and dangerous condition. Persistent efforts have been made by the fire department to secure ordinance changes that would effectively reduce the mushrooming conflagration hazard. To date, no legislation has been enacted to specifically counter this peculiar and dire peril in the mountainous portions of the city. The ravaged dwellings in Bel Air and Brentwood remain a depressing monument to this fact.
The people living in these regions will receive a maximum degree of security from fire only when reasonable and enforceable laws are produced to effectively regulate and control unsafe structural practices, brush clearance around buildings, water distribution, and accessibility within the mountain areas. Once a conflagration has begun, the best-trained fire fighters, most modern apparatus, and best tactical procedures can only struggle to restrict losses. To be realistic, it is the cause that must first be removed. No responsible fire authority can give assurance that a conflagration will not occur while, at the same time, terrible conflagration conditions are permitted to exist. If the Bel Air and Brentwood disasters are not to be repeated in the future, it is mandatory that conflagrations be attacked in the most intelligent manner---before they have a chance to begin.
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