The call came into the office around 11:00 in the morning. “It’s Elayne,” the receptionist said, “She says that she doesn’t want to disturb you if you are busy. I told her you were free.”
“Hi,” I said picking up the phone on my desk, “what’s up?”
“Well,” she answered, “I really don’t want to bother you at the office, but I’m a little bit concerned. There’s a lot of smoke coming over the hill. I called Helen, next door. She noticed the same thing and called the fire department. They told her not to worry; it’s coming from a small brush fire on the Valley side of the mountain and that they are “on top of it”.
Let me stop at this point and digress. It was fall of 1961, November to be exact. We were married with two young kids and another on the way. We were living in a modest three-bedroom bungalow on a quiet Bel Air street with a beautiful name, ‘Chantilly Road’. It was our first house. We bought it for $37,500 and our mortgage payments were $125 a month.
After a tough year between jobs, I was now earning a small but steady salary as the editor of a new magazine for FM radio listeners.
I tried to comfort Elayne by assuring her that the fire department knows their business, and if she is ever in danger she can be assured that they will insist she evacuate the house and get to some place safe.
As soon as I hung up I too called the fire department and got a recorded message assuring me that everything was under control. I turned on the radio in my office, but there wasn’t a mention of a fire in Bel Air or anywhere else for that matter.
Now it just so happens that I had a lunch date scheduled with an old friend from Minnesota who was in town that day on business. As I pondered that lunch date and my afternoon schedule, I couldn’t get Elayne’s phone call out of my mind. I called her back. “The smoke is still coming over the hill,” she said with obvious concern in her voice.
“Look honey,” I said, “I have a lunch date with Marshall Oreck who’s in town from New Orleans. Why don’t you make us some tuna salad sandwiches? I think we would both feel more comfortable if I was there. I’m sure the smoke you are seeing will come to nothing, but just in case… and I’m sure Marshall won’t mind.”
We were about ten minutes from Bel Air when we saw the smoke, and there was plenty of it. It didn’t look like nice clean white brush fire smoke. It was black and menacing and growing in size.
There was a lot of traffic as we approached the West Gates of Bel Air, including fire engines and police cars. As we pulled up to the entrance we were stopped. I explained that I owned a house on Chantilly and my wife and son were up there. They were giving me an argument. I couldn’t believe it. Then, as if on cue, Elayne emerged through the gates in her station wagon with Danny, our three-year-old.
“Don’t bother,” she said. “By the time you get there our house will be on fire. There are no fire engines up there. All the houses on our street could burn. The fire was on the hill behind our house when we left. They are evacuating everybody in Bel Air. The thing is out of control.”
“What about Cindy (our six-year-old daughter)?” I asked.
“She’s ok. They evacuated Belagio School.”
“Were you able to save anything?”
“No,” she replied. “There’s nothing you can save. They won’t let cars up there anyway. I’m going over to my sister’s.” As it turned out, she saved nothing but the housecoat she was wearing when she evacuated.
Elayne’s sister, Corrine, lived in Brentwood which was easily five minutes west of Bel Air and a long way, or so we thought, from the fire.
It was panic city there at the Sunset and Veteran intersection where the West Gate of Bel Air is located. Marshall and I parked the car about a block away and walked over to the tumult to see what we could find out. There must have been fifty cars lined up, only to be turned away. The only vehicles that were permitted to enter the gate were those of the fire or police departments and some TV and radio station news crews.
“Maybe we could ride up with one of those guys,” said Marshall pointing at a KMPC Radio station wagon.
“Hey,” I called out. “Are you going up anywhere near Chantilly Road?” The driver nodded and said they were heading for Belagio which happened to cross our street at its base.
“Can you give us a lift?” I more or less begged, “I have a house up there.”
“Sure, jump in… how long have you lived there? What is your house worth? Etc, etc…” Well after all, they were newsmen. In the three minutes it took to get up to Chantilly, they had my life story. They dropped us off at the bottom of Chantilly and wished us good luck.
There we were alone in the middle of the fire. Though it was mid-day, you wouldn’t know it. It could have been mid-night. Houses all around us were burning. The wood shingle roofs were exploding like chains of fire crackers. Chantilly Road was a tunnel in a sea of flying embers.
We headed up the hill. For some strange reason there was no smoke in our “tunnel”. Some neighbors on Chantilly had turned on their lawn sprinklers. What were they thinking? Were they trying to protect their grass? The heat being what it was, we showered in that sprinkler water, business suits and all. Wild game, a coyote and several deer rushed by us, but we never saw another human being on that street, no neighbors or firemen or anyone trying to save a house or its contents.
We looked at each other. What were we doing up there? The fire was coming down the hill. It appeared that everything in its path was burning. We were still about 200 yards from my house which, with its wood shingle roof was certainly gone.
“You know Marshall,” I said, “I think we should get out of here.”
We turned around and headed back down the hill. Would you believe in miracles? No sooner than we reached the bottom of Chantilly when who should drive up, but our friends from KMPC.
“My God,” cried the driver. “We figured you guys to be cinders by now. The whole place is going up. Nothing is stopping it. We saw a couple of engines about half way up Roscomare (the next canyon to the west). They were spraying water on the houses that hadn’t already been torched. Once a house is on fire, they just let it burn.”
“How were you guys planning to get out if we hadn’t come back this way?”
We had no answers. Marshall and I looked like we had fought a fire ourselves. Our hair and eyebrows were singed. Our soaked suits were covered with ash. However, believe it or not, we were both a little disappointed. All that effort, and we never made it. What a bummer. They gave us each a bottle of water and took us down to the gate. It was still chaos.
I drove Marshall to his hotel and headed over to my sister-in-law’s house in Brentwood. It is difficult to believe, but the fire had jumped the 405 Freeway and was leap frogging west from hilltop to hilltop.
I climbed up on my sister-in-law’s flat roof with a couple of garden hoses just in case. The closest it got to her place was a few streets away, and several homes in her neighborhood were lost. St. Mary’s College, also in Brentwood, was hit hard, losing its Nuns’ Quarters and Fine Arts Building.
The Bel Air Fire of 1961 was the largest in the city’s history. Four-hundred eighty-five homes were lost and many others were damaged. The fire is said to have started accidentally somewhere in the hills above Sherman Oaks at the north end of Stone Canyon.
It spread east as far as Beverly Glen, west to Mandeville Canyon, north to Mulholland Drive and south to Sunset Boulevard. It involved over 6,000 acres and was spread by Santa Ana winds with gusts up to 50 miles per hour. It was virtually unstoppable for a number of reasons. There had been a prolonged drought that year. Brush clearing in the residential areas had been resisted by residents who enjoyed the beautiful vegetation on the hillsides around their homes. To fight a fire and deploy firemen on those brush-filled hillsides would have been suicide. To literally add ‘fuel to the fire’: Of the 484 homes destroyed, 382 had wood shingle shake roofs like my own. Wood shingle fire brands can be carried as much as 2 to 3 miles in a Santa Ana windstorm.
The Los Angeles Fire Department proved woefully inadequate in its attempt to control the spread of the fire. Water supply and pressure were limited in Bel Air at the time, especially in ridge tops where hydrants failed. To make matters worse, residents left water running in their sinks and bathtubs and, as Marshall and I discovered, turned their lawn sprinklers on before vacating.
Steep, winding, narrow streets, some ending in cul-de-sacs or dead ends created logistical nightmares for firefighters unfamiliar with the territory. There were helicopters, but lack of secure radio frequencies and over-crowding of those available made communication with ground fighters extremely difficult.
There were fire-fighting air craft at the Ontario airport, but only 12 tankers and some of those had to be diverted to fight another fire raging at the same time in Orange County. There were several borate bombers specifically set aside to contain mountain brush fires. It’s rumored that their departure from Ontario was delayed for fear that the borate would be inappropriate for use in populated areas, especially in a community as affluent as Bel Air. When their use was finally OK’d borate proved to be highly effective and a number of homes were saved as a result.
Among the homes lost in the fire were those owned by celebrities such as Burt Lancaster, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Fred McMurray, Joe E. Brown and Cliff Robertson. Others, such as those owned by Richard Nixon, Laurence Welk and Red Skelton, were saved. Actress Kim Novak who’s house, like mine, was also on Chantilly, managed to save her home down the street despite its shingled roof when she and her husband fended off the flames with garden hoses.
Coincidentally, Bel Air Country Club and the Bel Air Hotel were saved, though they were certainly in the middle of it all. Maybe it was their tile roofs that saved them or perhaps it could have had something to do with the special attention they received from the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Elayne, the kids and I spent the night of the fire with my in-laws, Belle and Harry Nagin, in their one bedroom and den home in Beverly Hills. We had lost everything but our two cars and the clothes on our backs in that fire. Friends brought over some clothes for the kids and Elayne’s sister loaned her some stuff. I was two sizes bigger than my brother-in-law. However, I had the suit I was wearing and another along with a sweater at the dry cleaners. My friend Dick Carroll called me a couple of days later and ordered me to come down to his store in Beverly Hills and help myself.
I went up to check out the destruction the morning after the fire when they began permitting residents to return to their homes, or what was left of them.
There was nothing left at 1139 Chantilly, our address. The chimney was the only thing standing on our lot. The stucco walls had fallen out like an open can of sardines. Everything inside was ashes, twisted metal and broken glass. Those homes that had been standing around ours weren’t standing anymore.
Elayne’s mother, Belle, came up with me to sift through the ashes for valuables the next day. She went directly to the area where Elayne kept her jewelry and found only charred and melted remnants. She next went to the location of what was a cabinet in the living room where we kept the Steuben crystal glassware and the handmade Alan Adler silverware we had received as wedding presents. All she found was one big glob of glass, silver, charred wood and nails. It must have weighed ten pounds or more. It looked like a contemporary sculpture. I set it aside to pick up the next day, but it was stolen by looters sometime that night, along with what was left of my golf clubs, which were far beyond salvageable.
Elayne returned with me the following day when the ashes had cooled. It became obvious that we had lost everything that was on the premises the day of the fire, which apart from our two cars was just about everything we owned. After two nights at our in-law’s, Elayne and I agreed that we had to find our little family a place to live. This was not an easy task with over 500 households facing the same problem. The few rentals available in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica were snapped up quickly. Unfortunately young families, such as ours, with little kids were not the most desirable of tenants.