Sunday, November the 5th, 1961 was hot and windy in Los Angeles. The notorious Santa Ana winds were blowing, and the cold that most of the country was feeling was notably absent in the “City of Angels.” Although the winds slowed overnight, as dawn approached on Monday the 6th, it appeared that the week would be another one of heat, winds, and low humidity.
Fireman Frank W. Borden had reported to work at Fire Station 92 as part of the B-Platoon and was preparing for the morning lineup when four bells noted the arrival of a teletype from headquarters, noting the day would be considered a “high hazard” day in the Santa Monica mountains, directly to the north and northwest of the station where Borden was assigned, on Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles.
At 8:15AM, the Van Nuys Signal Office received a telephone call from a construction crew about “burning trash” at the northern end of Stone Canyon on the Sherman Oaks side of Mulholland Drive. Within a few minutes, additional calls came into the West Los Angeles and Westlake Signal Offices.
As the first fire companies left quarters and headed up toward Stone Canyon, the Van Nuys Signal Office received a radio report of, “a significant loomup.” Within minutes, the first Battalion Chief had arrived on scene. The fire was already cresting the top of Stone Canyon and moving west at great, wind-driven speeds.
In Fire Station 92, lineup (the morning crew meeting) was underway. Fireman Borden and his crew were being updated by their Captain, Jack Skinner. In those days, lineup was a fairly formal affair, and the crew was literally lined up in front of the apparatus facing the street. The apparatus doors were open. Captain Skinner, was facing his crew, unable to see what his firemen saw – a dark billowing cloud of smoke filling the west Los Angeles sky. After a moment of disbelief the crew alerted their skipper to the impressive sight and although not yet called, the crew grabbed their gear and prepared to respond to a fire they knew they would fight.
By this time, the first command post had been established on Mullholland Drive above Stone Canyon. Additional units were requested, including Engine 92. It was now nearly 8:30AM, and a “major emergency” was declared. The fire had by now overrun the upper Stone Canyon resevoir and was moving uncontrolled into the ritzy and expensive community of Bel Air. Incoming companies were deployed along Chalon, Chantilly and Roscomare Road, several of the more populated streets within the Bel Air community.
Engine 92 had travelled up Sepulveda Blvd and was moving east on Mulholland towards Roscomare, when the road in front of them appeared to be overrun with smoke and fire. Captain Skinner, knowing that there was little time, turned around and yelled at his crew above the roar of the 1958 Seagrave Triple Combination Engine, “Okay, boys, duck your heads and close your eyes! We’re going through the fire!” The Engineer, “Hoppy” Hopkins, engaged the clutch and upshifted. The truck accelerated and bore down on the curtain of fire and smoke.
Seconds later, the large open cockpit fire engine emerged on the other side of the flaming front, unscathed. The only evidence the crew had just driven through a wall of flames was dozens of small embers lying on the hosebed. Or so they thought.
Fireman Borden recalls that at first, everyone was giddy at the near miss and busy patting out the bits of smoldering hose in the bed in front of the tailboard they were riding. But the smell of burning didn’t stop, and Borden then noticed that his pants were on fire…literally. This was before Nomex-based turnouts when firemen wore dungarees. As the engine careened through the twisty roads, Borden reached down and patted the fire out, “rather vigorously,” he recalled.
Within five hours, the entire A-Platoon of the LAFD had been recalled to duty (it was a B-Platoon day). The wind was gusting up to 100mph in the midst of the blaze, while the Santa Ana winds were averaging 65mph. The fire moved southeast from Mulholland Drive, moved down Stradella and then whipped its way down Roscomare Road.
Engine 92 was positioned on Roscomare, and fireman Borden, along with several other firemen were working to save several homes. The fire front had not arrived, but the 65mph winds were carrying burning brands for miles and as they landed on the then-common wood shake roofs of the 1950s era-homes, they ignited. Homes were burning from the roof down. It was difficult to see as the sky was blotted out. Brands and sparks filled the air, along with smoke, making it very difficult to breath. And worst of all, water pressure was dropping, making it nearly impossible to properly fight the blaze. In some cases, firemen shoveled dirt onto burning garages and roofs, attempting to stop the advance of the fire.
Engine 92 was at the corner of Roscomare and Anzio Road. A beautiful home with a wood shake roof had just “taken off.” The roof was ablaze. Fireman Borden advanced a one and a half inch line into the home, and was in the attic, attempting to save the interior of the home. Engineer Hopkins noticed the roof was starting to weaken and rushed inside, urging Borden to get out. As they made their way outside, part of the roof collapsed into the structure. It was a close call, but only one of many that firefighters would face throughout the day and night.
Chief Henry Sawyer, division commander of the mountain patrol knew it was vital to get a good overview of the massive blaze. The LAFD had ordered its first helicopter, but it had not yet arrived. Undaunted, the chief requested the use of a local news helicopter and rode above – the first use of a helicopter as a command observation platform.
Flames reached the 14th tee of the exclusive Bel Air Country Club, and dotted the landscape throughout Bel Air. Within a few hours, the flames jumped Sepulveda Boulevard and the newly constructed San Diego Freeway. The fire spread to Brentwood and down Kenter Avenue, extending into Mandeville Canyon and through the Santa Monica Mountains.
Engine 92 continued to work on structure defense. Using a “hit and run” tactic, designed to maximize the process of saving structures that could be saved, the crew and their triple moved throughout Bel Air, eventually ending up in Brentwood, dousing wood shingle roof after wood shingle roof. It was repetitive and exhausting. The wood shake shingles may have been pretty, but it was clear they were contributing to the destruction of homes.
n the early hours of November 7th, all off-duty LA City firemen were recalled. The LA County Fire Department provided six engines, six camp crews, and provided additional resources to staff empty LA City stations, as did many other surrounding fire agencies. An additional 400 LA County firefighters stood by. 250 National Guard soldiers were put into action to support the Los Angeles Police Department, as looting became a concern. Several people were arrested and the city put into effect the recently passed “State Disaster Law” that permitted on-the-spot arrest of any unauthorized person in a disaster zone.
The massive evacuation that took place was the largest in the city’s history. 300 police officers helped guide 3,500 residents out of Bel Air.
The northern boundary of the fire was Mulholland Drive. On the south it was about one-half mile above Sunset Boulevard. On the west, the flames were past Mandeville Canyon at one point and coursing toward Sullivan Canyon. The eastern boundary reached to Beverly Glen and to the edge of Benedict Canyon. (view fire map)
By the middle of the day on November 7th, 2,500 firefighters were battling the blaze, and were finally making progress. By 3 p.m. the winds began to still. Occasional bursts of wind blew hotspots 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.
The key to the overall firefight was 12 aerial tankers, converted WWII military aircraft, which were successful in stopping the advance of the fire by dropping fire retardant from the air. When the wind died on the afternoon of the 7th, firefighters knew the end was near. The efforts of those firefighters who battled to save homes should not be underestimated, however. A wind-driven wildfire is unlike any other, and “structure protection” is a dangerous and potentially deadly activity.
Nearly a dozen firefighters were injured, many from molten tar dripping from the roofs of blazing homes. Three LA firemen were admitted to UCLA Medical Center. Their injuries, although not life threatening, were the worst suffered during the wildfire incident. Up to 100 other people suffered slight injuries, depending on which report you read.
In Bel Air, 484 homes were destroyed. 190 others were damaged. 16,090 acres were burned. The cost of damage (in 1961 dollars) was in excess of $30 million. Yet, the incident was considered a success, as the LAFD saved 78% of the homes in the path of the fire. It’s a remarkable statement, given this fire took place before the implementation of incident command, helicopter firefighting, and all of the other modern fire suppression tactics that exist today.
As a result of the Bel Air Disaster, the City of Los Angeles was able to initiate a series of fire safety policies and several laws, including the outlawing of wood shake/shingle roofs. The Brush Clearance program was initiated and today, the City of Los Angeles has one of the most stringent policies designed to create defensible space around homes. You can visit the LAFD Brush Clearance website to learn more.
Most importantly, the disaster that was November 6, 1961 could occur again. A wind-driven wildfire is unique when it comes to firefighting. It is a co-conspirator with the weather, and is difficult, in fact nearly impossible to predict relative to direction, speed, and intensity. Only with continuing cooperation of homeowners, following the law with regard to brush clearance, defensible space overall, home hardening, and the things being taught by MySafe:LA and the LA Wildfire Alliance – to be prepared when a disaster strikes, can the tragedy of the Bel Air fire be avoided in the future.
Editor’s Note: Frank Borden was a remarkable individual and leader within the LAFD. He retired an Assistant Chief, and during his time on the job, spearheaded the development of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. He was actively involved in the development of the LAFD Historical Society and acted as the Operations Director for the Museum in Hollywood and the sub-facility in San Pedro. Frank passed away at the age of 82 in 2021.