Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

    September 16, 1979
    The Kirkwood Bowl/Laurel Canyon Fire
    Hollywood Hills

L.A. Herald Examiner, Tuesday, September 25, 1979

From the ashes of Laurel Canyon, some burning questions

'Even though we could be seen from the air...the decision-makers of the Fire Department on duty that day had abandoned us'
By Roderick Thorp
The neighbors, the few who are left, have been drifting in, and over coffee we have been trying to make sense of what is now being called "The Laurel Canyon fire."

I was right in the middle of it, on Grandview Drive far above Sunset, where the flames swept across the slopes facing the city for more than a quarter of a mile. All the houses on that side of Grandview save two were destroyed; on the canyon side, only one burned down, the huge tri-level of John Mayall, the British blues and rock'n'roll star.

While the fire raced up Colecrest to the west, it never really got started in the canyon side of Grandview, down on Kirkwood Drive, where there are scores of homes. As it was, at least three houses down in the canyon were destroyed and several others damaged. Effectively, the firepeaked at the top of the hill on Grandview, so in the days since the fire I have been having difficulty understanding why it took the engine companies almost two hours to reach my neighbor Bill Bolanos and me, who stayed to hose down the three houses to the east of Mayall's our own two and the one belonging to Michael Hamilton.

Hamilton was on Kirkwood Drive during the fire, unable to get past the police barricade.
"It was like a war up there," Hamilton said three days later. "The smoke and flames made it impossible to see anything. But that was only part of the problem. It was a madhouse down here. Kirkwood Drive was full of instant refugees carrying television sets, stereos, video recorders..."

"Why were they trying to save that junk?"
"Gold is $380 an ounce,"Hamilton said.
I didn't understand.
"Gold at $380. an ounce means that people don't believe in anything anymore," he said.
"They don't believe in country, city, community..."

You can see where that leads. Finally, such people don't believe in themselves, trying only meaningless, but constantly threatening.

It wasn't as simple as that on the Sunday of the fire. Not everybody yielded to the comedy of schlepping electronic gizmos up and down the canyon. Smoke was everywhere, but from the top of the hill I could see men, women and children on the hillsides, with shovels and brooms, beating out the sparks.

One of them was a little waitress named Michi, visiting friends on Kirkwood Drive. Jason Mayall, son of the rock'n'roller whose home burned down, reported that she worked four hours, beating out sparks with a heavy plumber's wrench.

Jason, who is 19, made this discovery the day after the fire in the sushi bar on Sunset where Michi works. The Mayalls lost everything, and the owners of the sushi bar pressed cash into Jason's hand so he could buy clothes.

Midway through the fire, young Mayall was on Fairfax Avenue, and when the smoke lifted temporarily, he said to himself, "There's Rod's house, and Michael's. Mine is gone."

Jason wasn't the only person to see that some houses were still standing on Grandview Drive. The Monday after the fire, television crews covering the aftermath told me that on Sunday they had seen Bolanos and me from their helicopters, and that they had been rooting for us.

For almost two hours, Bolanos and I hosed down our houses, putting out hot spots, extinguishing small brush fires between and around our houses. Together we watched Fire Department helicopters and the visiting Canadian Superscoopers pass over our heads and dump water into the empty canyon below us, where the brush -- but only brush -- was surrendering totally to the flames.

Bolanos and I were doing what the Fire Department insists is the best thing in a fire: We were keeping the structures cool, holding our ground. The Mayall house had become an inferno, endangering the three we were protecting. The building was so big that very little of the fire got past it, and today there is only a half acre of scorched earth behind the three houses that remain standing.

When the firefighters arrived, Bolanos and I had been out of water for two minutes, and every gas meter on the street was ablaze. The men in the crews were excellent, if somewhat surprised to see us.

That's when the helicopter and Superscooper airdrops began on our end of Grandview Drive, after the firefighters on the ground had arrived. One said as he hurried past, "We have to save the ones we can and abandon the others."

Well, now. TV crews could see us from the air, but we never got any assistance from the Fire Department.

For most of the two hours, Bolanos and I were trapped by fire on both sides, but even though we could be seen from the air, the evidence exists -- look at the videotapes -- that the decision-makers of the Fire Department on duty that day had abandoned us.

And, as was shown in the next few minutes, one run of a Superscooper was all that was needed to break the back of the Mayall blaze.

As everyone in Laurel Canyon that day can testify, the Superscoopers more than proved their worth -- yet within days, the press was filled with petty bureaucratic mutterings about paperwork to certify them, and worse, cries of alarm that the Canadian planes could have caused more problems than they solved.

The Canadian pilots were doing exactly as they were told from the ground. I know. I was there.

No wonder people were carrying their television sets away. Fighting the Laurel Canyon fire with politics almost cost Bolanos and me our lives.

Yet this is the way everything is done these days, and nobody knows how to make the process stop.

Certainly not our fearless leaders.

The Laurel Canyon fire was the worst in the city since Mandeville Canyon, yet the mayor hasn't even offered a word of condolence.

Gov. Moonbeam has a home further up in Laurel Canyon, but he was prancing through New England with Barbarella and her consort, the slack-jawed revolutionary.

Soon comes the rainy season, and these now-bare hills will turn into torrents of mud that will bury the houses below.

People are telling me, get on the telephone and make sure the government seeds the hills.

I've already ordered 200 pounds of rye grass seed, and the nurseryman promises more if I need it.

I'm going to do it myself.
Can anybody out there tell me a better way today?
Roderick Thorp's new novel, "Nothing Lasts Forever," was published yesterday by W.W.Norton & Co.,Inc.



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