Close Call for Fire Station 35

By early morning on May 8,  the firefighters at Station 35 knew that the possibility of a fire in the tinder-dry hills of Griffith Park was real. All the factors were in place — humidity was low, and the brush that had grown high after last year’s heavy rains was parched.

Feeling the heat: Flames roar toward a crew under the bridge as a helicopter
drenches the site with water. (COURTESY KCAL 9 NEWS)

At the fire station on Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz, a short jog from the park, that day’s crew was nagged by the possibility that the winds could pick up. The firefighters’ worst fears were realized around 1:20 p.m., when they got a knock on the station door.

“It was a male resident in his mid-30s,” recalls Captain Bill Wick. The unidentified man was alerting them of fire via “still alarm” — firefighter lingo for a call that doesn’t go through dispatch or 911. The panicked Los Feliz resident dragged the captain outside and pointed toward a cloud of smoke emanating from the hills of the 4,210-acre park, one of the largest urban parks in the nation.

As one group of emergency medical technicians rushed to help a burn victim, who was later cited for smoking in a restricted area and released after being treated for his burns, the rest of the 14-member crew piled into Station 35’s two engines, a brush-patrol truck and a fire truck, and raced toward the park to assess the damage.

By sheer coincidence, Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, City Hall’s resident expert on all things Griffith Park, was driving along Sunset Boulevard when he spotted the cloud of smoke. Recalls LaBonge, “I get to Maltman Avenue and I say, ‘It doesn’t look good.’” As he tells it, he drove his city car in a “safe fashion” to Hillhurst Avenue and pulled in behind the firefighters as they wound their way up Vermont Avenue to surface streets finally leading into Aberdeen Canyon.

The small convoy ended up northeast of the Roosevelt Municipal Golf Course on the park’s southern edge, near the Greek Theatre and Hogback Trail Bridge — a well-known rustic, yet elegant, overpass for hikers and equestrians. The bridge leads from lower hiking paths to Dante’s View, a picturesque two-acre garden created by an Italian immigrant in 1964, and Glendale Peak, a favorite spot for hikers.

{mosimage}What happened next will probably never be forgotten by the fire crew — or LaBonge — or TV viewers watching live as KCAL-9 helicopter pilot Derek Bell and photographer Chris Haug homed in on the gutsy crew as they confronted a wall of flames that put their lives in jeopardy.

“I yelled at some guys about the importance of the bridge,” LaBonge tells the L.A. Weekly, referring to the 50-foot-long Hogback Trail Bridge, built in 2004 for $200,000. His beloved bridge was directly in the path of the fire, and LaBonge had noticed a Los Angeles Times staff photographer’s car parked on the service road, potentially crowding the passing fire trucks. “I whipped the car out of the way and called the [city] desk at the Times and told them I moved it.”

While LaBonge was playing Good Samaritan, the firefighters were grouping near the blaze and assessing its magnitude, their fear mounting that it had the potential to destroy not only the bridge, but other major landmarks, including the Greek Theatre and the Griffith Observatory, and million-dollar Los Feliz homes.

“We went up there to stop the fire, and like every structure — be it an outhouse, bridge or fence — we will try to protect it,” says Wick, the captain. “But I won’t put my guys in harm’s way to protect a bridge. It was definitely not our first priority.”

One of the biggest problems was the inaccessibility of the fire. Griffith Park has notoriously difficult terrain and is too steep for ground crews to fight without other help. The blaze had not grown much, at that point still being described by authorities as “10 acres of medium brush burning uphill.”

Firefighters sought assistance from water-dropping helicopters called in immediately from the city and county — but not quick enough for Station 35 firefighter Will Heritier, who, along with colleague Brian Walker, two other firefighters and two park rangers, had climbed up a steep slope by Hogback Trail.

Heritier says he and his fellow firefighters attempted to head off the blaze roaring toward Hogback Trail Bridge. Fanned by winds of roughly 10 mph, the blaze “preheated” the brush ahead of its path, and soon raced out of control.

“When we got there, we saw flames, but it didn’t seem to be that large-scale yet,” says Heritier days later, sitting at Station 35’s kitchen table surrounded by cookies, pies and cheesecakes — gifts from thankful nearby homeowners.

Without warning, a wall of flame roared above them, licking perilously close to the men who ducked for cover beneath the wooden bridge they had thought to save. “It happened real quick,” recalls Heritier. “It just shot up like a chimney. Did we think it was going to be that large? No!”

In a shot by Haug carried live on CNN and Fox News and broadcast globally, they hunkered down as embers landed around them, starting spot fires and even burning one of their hoses.

“It hit our trigger point,” says Wick, meaning the fire rushed to within an unsafe distance of the crew. “We knew we had five minutes” before the crew members were hurt — or worse — and they knew “we couldn’t extinguish it ourselves.”

In a harrowing call heard over the Los Angeles Fire Department’s radio system, the captain made an emergency appeal for water to be dumped directly above his men. Says photographer Haug, who captured the flames rushing toward the crew, “They basically disappeared in flames. The whole bridge just turned orange.” Soon, an LAFD helicopter dropped 400 gallons of water — all dramatically shot by the hovering helicopter from KCAL-9 News — and the men and bridge were safe.

Thinking that the worst of the afternoon blaze had been brought under control, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LaBonge showed up at the park’s helicopter landing pad to congratulate the firefighters — but the two politicians were quickly told they had to leave, says Heritier.

It would be many hours before the department’s work was really done. By the end of last week, the fire had blackened 817 acres, destroying historic Dante’s View and damaging a bird sanctuary, the Cedar Grove area and restrooms near the Griffith Park nursery. The four-day blaze forced the temporary evacuation of portions of nearby Los Feliz and the closing of freeway off ramps on the Ventura (134) and Golden State (5) freeways. It prompted (human) evacuations of the Los Angeles Zoo, Autry historic museum and nearby golf courses.

The one tale that didn’t seem to make headlines was the one about the small band of firefighters who battled the blaze at Hogback Trail Bridge. A day after the incident, at a press conference, LaBonge found one of Station 35’s firefighters, thumping him on the back and exclaiming, “You saved the bridge! I was telling them yesterday, ‘We have to save the bridge.’”

It was the worst Griffith Park fire in three decades, but Wick downplays the severity of the battle for the bridge. “It wasn’t a close call. We took a moderate amount of risk for a tremendous amount of good.”

Adds Heritier, “We call this a career fire. It was historical. We train for this.”

Still keyed up, LaBonge called the Weekly just after 7 a.m. last Friday, reporting with great relief that the bridge sustained light damage and that only minor repairs would be needed.

“Tom [LaBonge] was up there giving the support,” says Wick, who joked that the council member is regularly at fire scenes, and for a while “we thought it was him starting the fires.”

Days later, the firefighters at Station 35 acted cool. All in a day’s work. But as Heritier notes, “We were fortunate someone didn’t get hurt. It was hard to see and breathe. That bridge protected us.”

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