Fire officials are spooked today as the drought-dried mountains above Glendora blaze with wildfire and “get out or be arrested” orders remain in effect. Their fear is not only about homes threatened by the Glendora Fire that began in the San Gabriel Mountains 25 miles east of Pasadena, but that L.A.'s “fire season,” which usually starts in the hot autumn months, has arrived far too early.
Key parts of suburban and urban L.A. are thick with tinder-dry brush and tree cover that hasn't burned in decades – that, combined with the absence of rain, has local fire experts “beyond nervous,” one official says. And wildfire authority Tony Morris, of the Wildfire Research Network, says “we have an unnatural fire season here. Topanga is tinder dry and will explode if there is a fire. Sierra Madre, Thousand Oaks, Palos Verdes and Malibu are all very, very vulnerable.” Not to mention Mandeville Canyon, Rustic Canyon, Laurel Canyon and Griffith Park.
Below is a history of major fire in Los Angleles that shows the areas some believe are again “most likely to burn” in 2014, a year that weather forecasters warn could prove to be the Great California Drought:
1933: Griffith Park Fire kills 29 firefighters and injures 150-plus when gusts of wind feed a blaze at the bottom of Dam Canyon that was being fought by volunteers and firefighters. Many got caught in its path, though only 46 acres burned. Griffith Park has since been a site of major fires and is considered in danger amidst a drought.
1938: Trippet Ranch Fire burned 24 square miles in the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills between Cahuenga Pass and the beach after a rancher threw out “dead ashes” near Topanga Canyon. It reached Pacific Palisades; officials said 24 per cent of the mountain district west of Cahuenga Boulevard was burned, including Mandeville, Rustic and Santa Ynez canyons. The area today is again filled with undergrowth and tree cover, and far more homes and businesses.
1955: La Tuna Canyon Fire burned for three days, accidentally begun by boys cooking on a backyard fire. It consumed 4,500 acres and reached into Burbank and the border of Glendale, burning four houses and many outbuildings, cars and trailers. The same hills are now considered bone-dry and are now populated with new communities surrounded by parched undergrowth.
1959: Laurel Canyon Brush Fire destroyed 36 homes, started by an incendiary of unknown origin on Lookout Mountain Avenue. According to an official 1959 report , it was difficult to defend due to “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.” Similar conditions exist today.
1961: Beachwood Canyon Brush Fire, driven by winds of up to 67 mph, destroyed 24 homes as it spread from North Beachwood Drive and Ledgewood Drive over the hilltops to the Valley side and eastward to nearly engulf Griffith Park Observatory. A major line of defense by firefighters saved the observatory. An official report described the area: “exceptionally narrow streets with some parked cars made the accessibility by fire fighting apparatus into the area an extremely difficult problem … forced the units that could get in to lay lines and protect the homes, therefore they were unable to concentrate on the raging brush fire. .. and extremely hazardous wind conditions whipped the fire from one canyon to another faster than the apparatus could be strategically located.”
1961: Bel Air/Brentwood Brush Fire, driven by 55 mps winds, destroyed 484 fine homes and 21 buildings, blackening 6,090 acres as it sped “through tinder-dry vegetation to the summit, leaped across Mulholland Drive and raged down the south slope into Stone Canyon on a rapidly widening front,” an LAFD report explained. A second fire erupted in Benedict Canyon, followed by a third fire in Woodland Hills near Mulholland Drive and Topanga Canyon. LAFD reported: “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.”
1970: Clampitt Fire, aka “The 1970 California Fire Siege” is described by Fire Department Network News: “the Clampitt, Wright and Agua Dulce fires – burned a combined total of 157,058 acres, destroyed a total of 357?homes and took five civilian?lives during the state-wide siege that burned a total of over 600,000 acres from September through November.” The Clampitt Fire, the largest, burned from distant Newhall into Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It led to brush-clearance rules, banning of combustible roof materials and a push for “replacing highly combustible ornamental plantings in the immediate vicinity of structures with low flammability vegetation.”
1977: Topanga Canyon Fire destroyed six homes and forced the evacuation of everyone east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and north of the town. A later analysis showed that fog moving in around 5 p.m. tamped down the fire and helped avert major disaster. The non-profit Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness says: “In the years since 1977 all these homes have been rebuilt … and the burned-over vegetation has regrown to pre-fire condition – sometimes worse. New construction has greatly increased the density … the roads have not improved …. A new fire of the 1977 type is not only possible, but increasingly likely.”
1978: The Mandeville Canyon Fire and Agoura-Malibu Fire erupted the same October day, with the Agoura-Malibu Fire racing from the inland suburb and growing into a 20-mile wide fire front that reached the Pacific Ocean, burning down beachfront homes. It claimed three lives, 230 homes and 254 structures and burned 25,000 acres. The separate Mandeville fire sped from Mulholland Drive into Kenter and Mandeville canyons to Pacific Palisades, destroying 20 homes.
1979: Kirkwood Bowl-Laurel Canyon Fire in September burned for four hours and destroyed 23 homes, most before LAFD had a chance to lay its first line. An LAFD report explained: “The topography of the fire area is comprised of steep hills, heavy brush, very winding narrow streets, with single ingress and egress, a heavy concentrations of older structures built in close proximity to each other on top of ridges.”
1993: Central Malibu/Old Topanga Fires, whipped by Santa Ana winds that November, killed three people, burned 16,516 acres and destroyed 739 homes. Fire officials predicted after the first half-hour that the conflagration would “'go to the beach,' as it had in 1956, 1970, and 1985.” According to LAFD “changing wind vectors forced fire into the mouths of all the major coastal canyons in the Malibu area. Strike Teams were amassing on Pacific Coast Highway, in preparation for what nearly all involved would describe as the 'fight of their lives.'”
2003: Simi Fire burned 108,204 acres, threatening Moorpark and Simi Valley, where Ventura County fire officials said “the Simi 'fuel bed' has never burned to that magnitude.” Officials credited an “aggressive” vegetation management program, modern building and fire codes, and improved firefighting, with preventing death and the loss of homes.
2007: The California Wildfires of October 2007 raged across the state, killing 9, injuring 85 people (including 61 firefighters) and burning more than 1,500 homes between Santa Barbara County and the Mexican border. Locally, parts of “twisting, parched, overgrown Malibu Canyon” burned after a fire started near the Malibu Canyon tunnel. Celebrities, including Sally Field and Kelsey Grammar, had to evacuate.
2007: The Corral Canyon Fire, fed by fierce Santa Ana winds, burned 53 homes and 4,900 acres of canyons and hills above Malibu. It was caused when five young men started an illegal late-night fire in a “party cave” in the hills. Two of them were later sentenced to one year in jail.
2009: The Station Fire, tenth-largest in California history, overtook and killed two firefighters and consumed 161,189 acres – 252 square miles – during a disastrous wildfire year that saw 63 blazes in the state. The Station Fire, set by an arsonist, licked the edges of dense population areas in Altadena and La Crescenta, and set off a bitter controversy over the U.S. Forest Service's refusal to fly water-dropping aircraft after dark. A federal report later said the key battleground, below Angeles Crest Highway, was “mature mixed chaparral, standing six to eight feet tall, at least 50 years old, and extremely flammable.”
2014: The Glendora Fire had burned 1,700 acres and destroyed two homes by the afternoon of Jan. 16. Three men were arrested for starting it, police said, by “tossing papers into [a] campfire and a breeze reportedly kicked up.”
Tony Morris cautioned that, despite this long history, Los Angeles-area officials have failed to arrange for enough water-dropping aircraft to save homes if a wildfire blazes out of control:
“I made a film called “>Initial Attack 2001 – nothing has changed since I made that film, and I am talking about aircraft. We don't have enough aircraft. … They don't lose houses in Italy because they have 19 Bombardier 415 and 80 pilots. We have one [federally contracted] plane and maybe three or four pilots. I have been urging the federal government to consider buying these aircraft. This is a war on wildfires, and we are losing it.”