LAUREL CANYON FIRE
July 10, 1959
....This fire, as with all fires of similar speed and intensity, cannot be
fought from pre-developed planning--fire loss is inevitable but mobility of mind and
action will produce the earliest containment. ....It is extremely difficult for a Field
Commander to exercise adequate command control at this type of emergency when he must rely
upon a single-channel radio net as his primary means of communication. ....Although this
type of fire is ultimately controlled by coordinated planning of senior commanders, the
greatest saving of life and property results when the first-level commander and the
trained individual take the correct immediate action in the absence of orders or senior
officer supervision. ....In spite of the added hazard of extreme fire speed, evacuation of
the danger area was effected without loss of life or serious injury.
The best evidence available indicates the Laurel Canyon fire was of
incendiary origin and that it started across the street from 8561 Lookout Mountain Avenue
at approximately 3:37 P.M., on July 10, 1959. (See Annex A)
THE EARLY SPREAD
Patrolman 17, Inspector Abel, was first-in at this fire, having responded
from the Schuyler Road Fire. His initial message was given at Sunset Boulevard and Laurel
Canyon Boulevard. He arrived at the scene about 3:44 P.M., to find the extremely
fast-burning fire had already crested the ridge behind Stanley Hills Drive and was
spreading to the South, East and West. His next message, at about 3:44 P.M., requested the
first-in company to protect 8410 Lookout Mountain Canyon. This message was followed at
3:45 P.M., by Chief Dick's request for four additional engine companies. The fire
continued to spread with unbelievable rapidity and by 3:55 P.M., had spotted approximately
one-fourth mile East of the Laurel Canyon-Willow Glen area.
The fire in the Willow-Glen canyon was of such intensity that fire fighters could not have worked to save houses with even the barest margin
for personal safety; it is estimated the fire inflicted all the structural damage during
the first thirty minutes of its activity.
The area in the vicinity of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Lookout Mountain
Avenue and Willow Glen Road is best described as follows:
--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.
--The homes that were lost, in most cases, had inadequate brush clearance
due in great part to the fact that the property owners have not been properly educated to
take the correct measures against soil erosion.
The 100 degree weather apparently had very little effect on the progress of the fire other than that it hindered the operation of the fire
fighters. The wind was very mild, consisting primarily of a high level current toward the
The response for this fire cannot be adequately
presented in narrative type (See Annex B). The control of the Laurel Canyon fire required
55 city engine companies, 8 county engine companies, 10 city auxiliary companies, 20 chief
officers, over 30 Mountain Patrol personnel and many men with special duty assignments.
Credit for control must also be shared with three County Camp crews, 100 or so police
officers, many of whom actively fought fire, the various relief agencies, and the
countless home owners who fought the fire with garden hose and shovel.
This fire had no element of a delayed alarm or a slow response in spite of
the fact that the normal first-assignment was at the Schuyler Road fire. Move-up companies
received initial assignments of protecting structures and could not have been deployed for
early control of the Lookout Mountain fire. First and second alarm assignments
notwithstanding, the fire was destined to run its course once it made its initial progress
during the first eight minutes. At no time during the critical period was it possible to
accumulate reserve units. Great quantities of burning material, carried aloft by the heat
column as witnessed by fire and civilian personnel alike, was deposited high on the canyon
walls of Laurel and Willow Glen. An analysis of the fire spread into the Willow Glen and
Elrita Drive area suggests a speed that ten to fifteen engine companies would not have
controlled even if they had been in the area ready for immediate deployment.
Initial attics at this fire can best be described as
purely defensive in character. Everyone in the Laurel Canyon area had a sense of impeding
disaster and fires immediately behind individual houses were attacked as a protective
measure. As early as 4 P.M., the Willow Glen area was indefensible and impassable from the
Laurel Canyon side.. Companies had to take circuitous routes to reach the homes on the
upper end of the canyon Woodstock Road. As companies arrived, they were assigned to the
various sectors from the temporary command post at Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout
Mountain Avenue. Company and sector assignments were made upon the basis of the most
pressing need at the time. Dispatch was made by the Signal Office on a "maximum
effort" basis. The speed of the developing emergency prohibited any "planned
approach" for company assignment at the fire. Effort to gain control in the Lookout
Mountain area was commenced very early but "control type" missions in the other
sectors were impossible until about 4:30 P.M. After this opening activity, chiefs in the
various sectors were assigned new companies or reassigned companies and the fire was
quickly controlled during the next three hours.
Prior planning had very little application even though this fire had been
anticipated for many years. Due to its speed of development, the element of time alone
prevented a step-by-step execution of fire strategy. Tactics were patterned to suite the
situation in the particular sector and were based on brush fire practices of long
standing. The detailed reports of engine company activities disclose no new innovations
but show backfire activity, tractor operation, ridge line defenses, extensive lays for
above-ground mains, and other routine operations.
The helicopter was not used extensively and additional employment might
well have aided to command control activity.
Fire loss figures for this emergency are difficult to ascertain with any
degree of accuracy. The great majority of the physical loss (see Annex "C") is
confined to 36 structures and six automobiles. Much of the loss will never be recovered
through insurance payment. Claims suggestive of competent evaluation, a fair valuation of
property damage might reach as high as $350,000. In spite of this sizable loss to the
citizen victim, the absence of loss of life should be cause for real thanksgiving.
When one compares this brush fire's toll of 36 homes against a ten year combined record of
four homes, it is difficult to establish a list of gains in our effort against the
destructiveness of fire. Still, this fire must be studied to the end that our department
will improve its performance against the day that it will again face this type of
emergency. Probably the most pressing need for improvement lies in the area of
communications. Previous refusals from communication
control agencies notwithstanding, we must redouble our efforts to obtain a second
interference-free channel. Even our stepped-up program to equip apparatus with two-channel
radios will not be adequate for this type of emergency as the Civil Defense frequency is
even now heavily used by local public safety agencies.
Another area requiring improvement is the operation of our field command
post. Because of the fire, a series of Command Post exercises will be conducted to develop
better "headquarters" practices and "fire sector" attics. The size of
the fire revealed a need for expanded logistical and administrative planning and
practices, and areas requiring additional training.
Highlighted, also, was the proof that some of our programs such as hydrant
coding, listing of heliport location, preplanning of fires, etc., are well worth the
expenditure of time and money. (A detailed list of findings and recommendations are
included in Annex "D" and further comments in category are not indicated.)
The Laurel Canyon fire of 1959 was a major emergency that levied a dreadful fire and
erosion toll upon many of our citizens. For this reason, it must be acknowledged as a
serious loss for our community. We can express our gratitude that no lives were lost and
take limited pride from the fact that this fire was brought quickly under control. Still,
one point is foremost--the Los Angeles Fire Department should accept the task of
recovering this loss. This can only be done by improving our professional proficiency,
correcting our equipment and operational deficiencies and adherence to our long-standing
principle of devotion to duty. When the challenge is adequately met by this department,
the losses in the Laurel Canyon fire will become assets to the public we serve, as well as