California is suffering its worst fire fall season in decades, after the huge Santa Rosa-Sonoma conflagration a few months ago, and the blazes surrounding the Los Angeles area over the past week. The Skirball fire itself, which has burned around the Bel-Air area and destroyed several homes, echoes that of the terrible November 1961 fire in the Bel-Air community in which celebrities like Joan Fontaine, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Burt Lancaster, and Joe E. Brown lost their houses. That fire was not the first to affect enclaves around Los Angeles that year though.
In May 1961, a fire around the Hollywoodland community and Griffith Park devoured eight homes, seriously damaged 24, and affected scores of others, threatened the Hollywood Sign, the Civil Defense station, Griffith Observatory, and zoo, while scorching acres of land in Griffith Park. On May 12, 1961, temperatures soared. At 7:43 pm that night, winds gusting 40 miles per hour and later up to 68 miles per hour, knocked down power lines at Hollyridge Drive and Canyon Drive, touching off a conflagration.
A slab on Deronda Drive is all that remains of the home of Aldous Huxley, via Google Street View.
Flames rushed diagonally northwest up Mount Lee and diagonally east through Bronson Canyon and into Griffith Park. Steep hillsides full of dry, dead brush and eucalyptus exploded with flying embers. Within 17 minutes of the first alarm, firefighters arrived and began battling the blaze. Over the night, more than 500 men from 43 companies created a ten-mile perimeter in which to fight the wind-swept inferno, which one newspaper described as “sheets of fire,” visible 40 miles away. Two water-dropping former bombers were brought in to help douse the flames climbing the canyon walls.
Many struggled to contain the blaze around Bronson Canyon and Griffith Park, as winds and flames threatened Griffith Observatory and the zoo. At one point, officials began preparations to evacuate zoo animals before the fire was brought under control. Flames came within 10 blocks of Franklin Avenue and down to Fern Dell Drive.
The elegant enclave of Hollywoodland fell under threat as the wildfire climbed the hillsides. As residents evacuated and ran for their lives, firefighters rushed to save homes. Actress Spring Byington remained in her house at 2946 N. Beachwood Drive, learning her lines for a TV show. Others rushed to spray down their residences with hoses or by pulling water out of their swimming pools. One couple on Rodgerton Drive took their jewelry and coin collection from their wood-shingled house to Malcolm Small’s stone mansion called the “Castle” across the street at 6201 Rodgerton. The stone castle was devoured by flames, while the shingled home survived.
The top of Beachwood Drive suffered disaster, with several homes going up in smoke and the Hollywood Riding Stables under immediate threat. Calvin Winn at 3020 N. Beachwood, where Erte had lived in 1925 when he worked in Hollywood, lost his home, as did R. C. Meyler at 3014 N. Beachwood and Albert Kothe, the former caretaker of the Hollywoodland Sign, at 3200 N. Beachwood.
Other Hollywoodland residents who lost homes included Henry Becker at 3226 Deronda, Mrs. Virginia Pfeiffer at 3210 Deronda, and Larry Lattman at 3137 Hollyridge. Homeowner George Mathers suffered head injuries while battling flames, and many others sustained damage to their homes.
Homeowners around Rodgerton, Pelham Place, and Deronda fell under threat as the fire pushed up the hill, including director Herbert Biberman and his wife, actress Gail Sondergaard and his brother, artist Edward Biberman. Writer Aldous Huxley and his wife, Laura, grabbed the manuscript of his current book “Island” as they rushed out of their residence at 3276 Deronda, escaping with the clothes on their back and the car a neighbor teen drove out of the garage. They at least possessed another home at 6322 Mulholland Drive in Hollywoodland in which to live.
Stable owner Julian Smith rushed into flames to rescue 60 horses, including one race horse and several pregnant mares. The May 14 Van Nuys Valley News reported that his 12 and 16-year-old daughters on horseback led 15 animals to safety all the way to Riverside Drive.Unfortunately the family still lost 30 horses to flames per the May 13 Pasadena Independent.
The Los Angeles Times reported that girls camping at the Hollywoodland scout camp sang “As the Saints Go Marching In” as flames shot up the hills near them.
By the morning of May 13, the fire was mostly contained, after 1400 acres, half in Griffith Park, burned, and over $3 million of damage to homes costing $30,000 – $100,000 occurred. The flames devoured property in Beachwood Canyon, Fern Dell Drive, and as far as Vermont Canyon. Fire Capt. Fritz Bush declared to the May 13 Oxnard Press Courier, “It was only by the grace of God and the red-hot firemen that many more homes weren’t destroyed.” Huxley and his wife never rebuilt the home on Deronda, and 56 years later, the slab still remains.
Even after this damage to homes, it took the larger and more destructive November 1961 Bel-Air fire to force the city and state of California to institute tougher laws regarding shingles, construction, and brush removal, areas that still affect fire survival to this day.
As California Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed a few days ago, as the climate grows ever warmer, the heightened state of potential devastating fires grows.