Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

     October, 1978
     The Mandeville Canyon Fire


'Little tornadoes of hell' seared posh canyon dreams

By Denise Kusel
Staff Writer

Smoke was still rising from the charred timbers that once held up the roof of a two-story home on Las Lomas Avenue in Pacific Palisades when Greg Hicks put his pet iguana in a wire cage.

When swift-moving flames swept down the hillside behind their home at 1252 Las Lomas Ave. Monday afternoon, forcing Greg and his parents to evacuate, the iguana was in a paper bag. Other family pets were in the car.

"Who knows what you take when something like this happens?" Mrs. Mabel Hicks said. "You take what's living. You take what's alive because life must go on."

Behind the gutted shell that was once their home, a lone deer walked on a charred and ravaged hillside.

"Yesterday you couldn't see that hill through the trees and scrub brush," Mrs. Hicks said. "Now it's nothing. The deer is as orphaned as my family."

Greg Hicks said he heard crackling noises before he heard the sirens.

"There was no warning. The flames came up over that ridge and raced down toward us. There were sparks flying everywhere. That's when we left."

Hicks peered into the living room window.

The furnishings that were left were singed. A piano stood next to a brick fireplace. Sheet music, soaked in water from firefighters' hoses in their unsuccessful effort to save the house, stood limply on the music stand.

Across the street, the wooden skeletons of two homes stood mute, remainders of the inferno that had swept out of the canyons near Sepulveda Boulevard, working its way toward the Pacific and finally stopping one ridge short of the ocean.

"Just when we thought we had it confined, it would turn and hook over into another canyon or sweep into another gully," said Los Angeles City Fire Inspector Willis Martin.

Standing inside the command post at Station House 23, about a quarter-mile from Pacific Coast Highway, Martin used his finger to trace the route of the fire on a wall map.

"We made a two-mile stand along Temescal Canyon. Then the winds whipped up and there was no stopping it."

The fire raged into the Palisades Highlands, a newly developed housing tract tucked deep into a canyon.

It swept up to Las Lomas Place, down through a back yard and into a home belonging to Dr. James Mead, burning it to the ground.

Next door, Lou Barnes was standing in front of his house, watering plants.

"It was gone in a flash," Barnes said looking toward the charred remains of the Mead home.

"All that's left on this block is my home and the one two doors down from the Mead's. I was told we were lucky because we have gravel rooftops. The Mead's had a shake roof. So did the house next door to them. Both homes are gone.

SANDY BARNES sat on a curb across the street from her home.

"We were leaving," Sandy said. "The windows had begun to explode. Glass was flying everywhere. Next door at the Mead's I heard paint cans exploding. There was no one home over there.

"And then the flames--they came over the hill. They turned the world orange and they roared an awful sound. I can still hear it in my ears."

Tears slid down her cheeks.

At the Marquez Knolls area of Pacific Palisades, across a canyon from the Palisades Highlands, Mrs Bobbie Farberow sat on a small brick retaining wall outside her home on Charmel Lane.

The home was not burned. The fire had crept up the hillside and stopped at an area the Farberows had cleared the year before--at the urging of the fire department as a precautionary measure.

MONDAY night, that precaution paid off.

"The fire stopped right there," Mrs. Farberow said, pointing to an area about five yards from her back door. "This wall of flame moved across the canyon and up the hill and it stopped right by the chain-link fence. Right where my husband and I had cleared the underbrush away.

"The whole thing was like a ghost movie. Like a little bit of hell.

"It created its own wind," Mrs. Farberow continued. "Little tornadoes of hell. At one time, I looked at my daughter and her hair was white with ashes.

"The air was filled with sparks. The smoke was so thick we could hardly breathe.

"The poor animals. Deer were jumping over the 6-foot chain-link fence. They had crazed looks in their eyes. They charged toward my son and he ran up a ladder. They were crazy with fright. You could taste the fear in the air."

Bobbie Farberow hugged her daughter Karen.

"Mama, don't cry," Karen said as her own eyes filled with tears. "Mama don't. It's OK now. We're all together."

Down the street a phone was ringing. No one answered it. The house was gone.


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