Remembering the Bel-Air Fire

Recently, I watched some old reels of the Bel-Air fire. On November 6, 1961, a pile of rubbish in Sherman Oaks was ignited by the intense Santa Ana winds. 6,090 acres and 495 buildings were burned before the three-day inferno was contained.

That fire forced my family’s evacuation and the evacuation of my school, John Thomas Dye School. Our school buses pulled away from the curb with the fire close on our heels. At the same time, on Roscomare Road, my mother was evacuating our home.

495 homes were lost in Bel-Air and Brentwood in the 1961 fire.

Not one life was lost. But causes and conditions were carefully analyzed to understand what contributed to such a disaster. Dry brush, combined with the Santa Ana winds sparked one of the worst conflagrations in Los Angeles’ fiery history.

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The Bel-Air fire swept quickly across Mulholland Drive. From the north slope of the mountains the flames raced voraciously, eating dry vegetation, crossing over the summit and down the south slope into Stone Canyon. Fifty-five mile an hour winds urged the flames on. In a short time the slopes were engulfed in a firestorm. No barriers could resist the flames.

A unique aspect of the Bel-Air fire was that it burned in one of the most desirable residential areas of Los Angeles. Dense brush dried by a prolonged drought made the area exceptionally vulnerable.

Fire on Stone Canyon quickly spread to upper Roscomare Road and east to Beverly Glen Canyon; it leapt to Stradella and Linda Flora. Flying brands lit roofs ahead of firefighters at a rate of 13 acres a minute. Flames engulfed homes even before the surrounding brush had ignited, burning from the roofs down, indicating that combustible roofs played a huge role in the spread of the blaze.

By noon, the fire that had begun at 8:15 had followed the San Diego Freeway down Sepulveda Canyon. Mt. St. Mary’s College was in its path. With winds of 50 mph, only two buildings were completely lost.

The fire spread to Brentwood and down Kenter Avenue, stretching into Mandeville Canyon and through the Santa Monica Mountains.

By 3 p.m. the winds began to still. Breezes blew the blaze upslope back towards Mulholland Drive. With bulldozers, backfires, and Borate drops, firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Not until the morning of November 8 did they reach containment.

What had begun as a brush fire had become a disaster on a level never seen before.

Today, fire-retardant shingles that slow the spread of burning embers have replaced wooden shingles.

We can take a page out of history and learn from this. Double paned glass and brush clearances are standard. Clean rain gutters of fallen debris before the season begins. Be sure that you have a plan. This is shaping up to be a very dry year.

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