Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

     July 10, 1959
     Laurel Canyon Fire
     Hollywood Hills



As the two neighbors surveyed the results of the Laurel Canyon fire, one remarked to the other, "It was a miracle that only thirty-six homes were lost in all that fire." This was the overstatement of the year. Effective fire fighting is not the result of a miracle but of training.

Long before the Laurel Canyon fire, Chief Henry Sawyer and his crew of mountain patrolmen had been concerned about the lack of opportunity for present day brush fire experience of the men in the rest of the City. During major brush fires, companies are dispatched from as far away as East Los Angeles and San Pedro.

To utilize apparatus to the fullest, it is necessary for the men using it to have a thorough knowledge of the practices and procedures used in these brush covered areas.

After months of planning and research by Chief Sawyer and training officers, a system was devised whereby every fireman in the City of Los Angeles would be familiarized with brush fire fighting procedures and related equipment. The product of their efforts was christened "BRUSH FIRE PROGRAM."

To create interest in the program, classes were conducted at Tank Patrol #2, 16500 Mulholland Drive. Buildings used for housing of the apparatus became the classrooms and samples of native foliage (including poison oak) were on display. (Periodically during class sessions gun fire from the speaker's podium renewed interest.)

Every man on the Los Angeles City Fire Department attended this program. The results of the Beverly Glen Fire and the recent Laurel Canyon Fire answers the question, "Did this program achieve the required results?" Had the men from San Pedro, East Los Angeles and downtown not been afforded the knowledge they received during this "Brush Fire Program," it may have been impossible to save so many of the homes.

A more detailed realization of the effects of this program is achieved when you thumb through the forty-five page text book used in this training.

Under the section on water conservation, it was pointed out that when a limited water supply exists, use it sparingly and only when you are reasonably assured of favorable results. It would be almost impossible to save a half-burned house with three hundred gallons of water but many companies saved three and four unburned houses by waiting until the fire was almost upon the house and then putting out the small spot fires after the main fire had passed on.

Another section dealt with the safety of apparatus, parking, means of egress, etc. As a result of this advice, not one piece of apparatus was lost at the Laurel Canyon Fire.

Why was both the front and rear yards of some houses burned but the house still intact.? A miracle? No, the textbook tells us to conserve water by entering the house or garage as the fire roars down on it and, after it passes return to the outside and put out the spot fires started by the fire's passing. Here we find a few gallons of water doing a job to the highest point of efficiency. To move from structure to structure with the fire, proved to be some of the best advice given in the textbook, for when the fire was out of control this procedure was followed and consequently many homes stood intact surrounded by charred vegetation.

The procedure used in evacuating residents was also aided greatly by knowledge gained at the "Brush Fire Program."

Had Chief Sawyer and his men spent their time playing pinochle, as so many people think firemen do, this program would have never materialized, for many long hours between fires were spent in its preparation.

This fire, like all fires in the City was fought a hundred times on the blackboard and in the minds of the men assigned to the area before it broke out. Every fire we have this coming year will have been fought on the blackboard of an Engine House somewhere in the City. Pre-planning minimizes fire loss, life loss and insurance rates.

Remember, no miracles were performed at the Laurel Canyon Fire.


The following report was compiled by Auto Fireman Bob Dove of the Los Angeles City's Mountain Patrol and is the result of a critique held after the Laurel Canyon Fire.


July 10, 1959

....This fire, as with all fires of similar speed and intensity, cannot be fought from pre-developed planning--fire loss is inevitable but mobility of mind and action will produce the earliest containment. ....It is extremely difficult for a Field Commander to exercise adequate command control at this type of emergency when he must rely upon a single-channel radio net as his primary means of communication. ....Although this type of fire is ultimately controlled by coordinated planning of senior commanders, the greatest saving of life and property results when the first-level commander and the trained individual take the correct immediate action in the absence of orders or senior officer supervision. ....In spite of the added hazard of extreme fire speed, evacuation of the danger area was effected without loss of life or serious injury.

The best evidence available indicates the Laurel Canyon fire was of incendiary origin and that it started across the street from 8561 Lookout Mountain Avenue at approximately 3:37 P.M., on July 10, 1959. (See Annex A)

Patrolman 17, Inspector Abel, was first-in at this fire, having responded from the Schuyler Road Fire. His initial message was given at Sunset Boulevard and Laurel Canyon Boulevard. He arrived at the scene about 3:44 P.M., to find the extremely fast-burning fire had already crested the ridge behind Stanley Hills Drive and was spreading to the South, East and West. His next message, at about 3:44 P.M., requested the first-in company to protect 8410 Lookout Mountain Canyon. This message was followed at 3:45 P.M., by Chief Dick's request for four additional engine companies. The fire continued to spread with unbelievable rapidity and by 3:55 P.M., had spotted approximately one-fourth mile East of the Laurel Canyon-Willow Glen area.

The fire in the Willow-Glen canyon was of such intensity that fire
fighters could not have worked to save houses with even the barest margin for personal safety; it is estimated the fire inflicted all the structural damage during the first thirty minutes of its activity.

The area in the vicinity of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Lookout Mountain Avenue and Willow Glen Road is best described as follows:
--Narrow, tree-filled canyons with streets comprising the entire floor area.

--The steep canyon walls are covered with dense, virgin brush.

--Nearly every possible building site is occupied with a home whose average age is over twenty years and has curb frontage on narrow streets or drives.

--The homes that were lost, in most cases, had inadequate brush clearance due in great part to the fact that the property owners have not been properly educated to take the correct measures against soil erosion.

The 100 degree weather apparently had very little effect on the
progress of the fire other than that it hindered the operation of the fire fighters. The wind was very mild, consisting primarily of a high level current toward the northeast.

response for this fire cannot be adequately presented in narrative type (See Annex B). The control of the Laurel Canyon fire required 55 city engine companies, 8 county engine companies, 10 city auxiliary companies, 20 chief officers, over 30 Mountain Patrol personnel and many men with special duty assignments. Credit for control must also be shared with three County Camp crews, 100 or so police officers, many of whom actively fought fire, the various relief agencies, and the countless home owners who fought the fire with garden hose and shovel.

This fire had no element of a delayed alarm or a slow response in spite of the fact that the normal first-assignment was at the Schuyler Road fire. Move-up companies received initial assignments of protecting structures and could not have been deployed for early control of the Lookout Mountain fire. First and second alarm assignments notwithstanding, the fire was destined to run its course once it made its initial progress during the first eight minutes. At no time during the critical period was it possible to accumulate reserve units. Great quantities of burning material, carried aloft by the heat column as witnessed by fire and civilian personnel alike, was deposited high on the canyon walls of Laurel and Willow Glen. An analysis of the fire spread into the Willow Glen and Elrita Drive area suggests a speed that ten to fifteen engine companies would not have controlled even if they had been in the area ready for immediate deployment.

attics at this fire can best be described as purely defensive in character. Everyone in the Laurel Canyon area had a sense of impeding disaster and fires immediately behind individual houses were attacked as a protective measure. As early as 4 P.M., the Willow Glen area was indefensible and impassable from the Laurel Canyon side.. Companies had to take circuitous routes to reach the homes on the upper end of the canyon Woodstock Road. As companies arrived, they were assigned to the various sectors from the temporary command post at Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue. Company and sector assignments were made upon the basis of the most pressing need at the time. Dispatch was made by the Signal Office on a "maximum effort" basis. The speed of the developing emergency prohibited any "planned approach" for company assignment at the fire. Effort to gain control in the Lookout Mountain area was commenced very early but "control type" missions in the other sectors were impossible until about 4:30 P.M. After this opening activity, chiefs in the various sectors were assigned new companies or reassigned companies and the fire was quickly controlled during the next three hours.

Prior planning had very little application even though this fire had been anticipated for many years. Due to its speed of development, the element of time alone prevented a step-by-step execution of fire strategy. Tactics were patterned to suite the situation in the particular sector and were based on brush fire practices of long standing. The detailed reports of engine company activities disclose no new innovations but show backfire activity, tractor operation, ridge line defenses, extensive lays for above-ground mains, and other routine operations.

The helicopter was not used extensively and additional employment might well have aided to command control activity.

Fire loss figures for this emergency are difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy. The great majority of the physical loss (see Annex "C") is confined to 36 structures and six automobiles. Much of the loss will never be recovered through insurance payment. Claims suggestive of competent evaluation, a fair valuation of property damage might reach as high as $350,000. In spite of this sizable loss to the citizen victim, the absence of loss of life should be cause for real thanksgiving.

When one compares this brush fire's toll of 36 homes against a ten year combined record of four homes, it is difficult to establish a list of gains in our effort against the destructiveness of fire. Still, this fire must be studied to the end that our department will improve its performance against the day that it will again face this type of emergency. Probably the most pressing need for improvement lies in the area of communications.
Previous refusals from communication control agencies notwithstanding, we must redouble our efforts to obtain a second interference-free channel. Even our stepped-up program to equip apparatus with two-channel radios will not be adequate for this type of emergency as the Civil Defense frequency is even now heavily used by local public safety agencies.

Another area requiring improvement is the operation of our field command post. Because of the fire, a series of Command Post exercises will be conducted to develop better "headquarters" practices and "fire sector" attics. The size of the fire revealed a need for expanded logistical and administrative planning and practices, and areas requiring additional training.

Highlighted, also, was the proof that some of our programs such as hydrant coding, listing of heliport location, preplanning of fires, etc., are well worth the expenditure of time and money. (A detailed list of findings and recommendations are included in Annex "D" and further comments in category are not indicated.)

The Laurel Canyon fire of 1959 was a major emergency that levied a dreadful fire and erosion toll upon many of our citizens. For this reason, it must be acknowledged as a serious loss for our community. We can express our gratitude that no lives were lost and take limited pride from the fact that this fire was brought quickly under control. Still, one point is foremost--the Los Angeles Fire Department should accept the task of recovering this loss. This can only be done by improving our professional proficiency, correcting our equipment and operational deficiencies and adherence to our long-standing principle of devotion to duty. When the challenge is adequately met by this department, the losses in the Laurel Canyon fire will become assets to the public we serve, as well as for


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