Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

     October, 1978
     The Mandeville Canyon Fire


The hour-by-hour battle
of $70 million holocaust

By Molly Burrell
Staff Writer

Six days ago the tinderbox that is Southern California flared into a $70 million-plus firestorm. Fanned by hurricane Santa Ana winds, 11 brush fires in four counties taxed firefighting resources to--and beyond--limits, charred 38,000 acres, destroyed more than 200 homes, killed three people and injured at least 50.

Miles of watershed were destroyed, paving the way for floods when the rains come.

In the post-mortem, the stunning facts emerge:
--Had they not abated Tuesday, the winds could have fanned disaster even further.
--But for well functioning mutual aid, fire loss could have doubled.
--With or without sufficient and sophisticated resources and backbreaking effort, Southern California is ultimately at the mercy of weather, fate and firebugs--a big, fragile, arterial oasis in a natural desert.

Fighting any fire takes more than muscle and guts. Know--how--cerebral and instinctive--is as important as water and courage. In firestorm like Agoura-Malibu, organization and communication are as important as water and courage, equipment and access.

Wind was the primary enemy and time was its partner Monday, Oct. 23. With one brush fire already out of control in the Elsinore-Perris area Sunday night, Monday brought seven more fires in six hours--four of them major, one a disaster in terms of sheer size and speed.

The Agoura-Malibu fire as a case study is a story in itself--a war story, and ecology lesson, a day-of-reckoning story and a human drama. It is also a keynote, an illustration in mutual aid and how it works and doesn't work.

It was the biggest blaze in the county since Sept. 25-29, 1970, when three fires from Newhall to Malibu converged to consume 75,000 acres--a record loss as far as anyone can remember.

The Agoura-Malibu firestorm, apparently torched by a firebug, swept to the sea in two hours on the path of winds up to 50 mph, taking with it three lives, 230 homes, 254 other structures and 25,000 acres of watershed.

In a day filled with fires, it quickly gained priority--Level 2, it's called--because of its size, speed and danger to life and property.. It pre-empted smaller fires elsewhere in the Southland, commanding resources from as far away as San Francisco. But, even as it raged, other fires sparked the communications networks, charged them with other emergencies and fueled instant decisions.

Chronologically, the Southern California fire log began like this Monday:
9:41 a.m. -- Mandeville Canyon fire erupts on Mulholland Drive.
10:20 a.m. -- Mandeville Canyon declared a major emergency.
10:40 a.m. -- The first of four brush fires begins in San Dimas.
10:59 a.m. -- Chino brush fire starts near Aerojet General, heads for Carbon Canyon in Orange County.
12:11 p.m. -- Agoura fire alarm.
12:38 p.m. -- Agoura is declared Level 1 (major emergency, fire management organization begins, "war room" procedures include expanded communications and support systems.)
12:47 p.m. -- Agua Dulce brush fire near Palatable.
1:34 p.m. -- Glendale fire.
1:57 p.m. -- Agoura declared Level 2 fire (maximum emergency, calling for everything available.)
2:30 p.m. -- Agoura-Malibu fire reaches the sea, 13 miles from start.
3:02 p.m. -- Brush fire starts north of Sierra Madre, heads up the San Gabriel Mountains.

In Agoura, the morning opened in apprehension for Milton Johnson, 50, captain of the four-member squad at County Station 65 on Cornell Road just south of Old Agoura Road. "Big Milt" (6 feet 3 and heavy) has been there since 1961 and knows every road, trail, structure and hydrant. He knows the dryness of the brush, the difficulties of access.

For one thing, the wind was blowing briskly. Then at 9:45 a.m. a small brush fire broke out northeast of his station, and he sent a man to help another company at the scene.

By 10:20, he knew Mandeville Canyon was a major emergency, and an hour later he took a velocity reading outside his office:24 mph.

12:11 p.m. -- The sound of running footsteps sets him on edge. "I always worry when I hear running. That's trouble!" he says.

He rushes out the door and meets a rumple-haired man in a red jacket who yells,"There's a brush fire just up the road."

Without greeting or thanks, he tells him "We're on the way" and yells "Lets go" to the two men inside.

12:12 p.m. -- The station alarm sounds, and the county fire dispatcher repeats the message on radio: "Brush fire on Cornell Road just north of your station."
12:13 p.m. -- Big Milt and his two men reach the scene on the east side of the road to find 12 acres involved. Flames and embers, spun by the wind, are jumping the road to the southwest, and simultaneously the fire creeps uphill toward tract homes near the Liberty fire break.

Johnson assesses the situation and radios his commander, Battalion Chief Gary Henery, 12 miles away on a ridge tracking the Mandeville Canyon blaze just over the county line. Henery orders full response:five engines, four camp crews, two helicopters, two patrol trucks and two tractors.

A second alarm on the same fire starts five more engines and four more camp crews.

12:14 p.m. -- Henery orders five more engines from Ventura County

Meanwhile, Johnson's engineer has jumped down to see if they can lay line, and the wind -- now hitting about 30 mph -- scoops his helmet and sails it 100 yards down the road. "Let it go," yells Big Milt.

12:15 p.m. -- Chief John England leaves Los Angeles Airport to take command of the fire.
12:16 p.m. -- Chief Henery sees the smoke and calls for 10 more engines. ______________________________________________________________________
"Fire is like an earthquake: It's not a matter of IF; It's a matter of WHEN. People who live in watershed and danger areas have got to protect themselves from the fire that is going to come eventually. Clear the weeds, make your home fire resistant, enclose the eaves and always have it in the back of your mind that there may be a fire.

"Given the velocity of the winds, the dryness of the growth and the nature of the terrain, the Agoura fire could not have been halted even if we'd had four times the men and equipment we used."

--Ken Lavoie,
Los Angeles County Fire Department

Johnson sees the fire jump Cornell Road and tear toward Kanan Road, the freeway exit best known to Renaissance Faire-goers.

Johnson stays to direct the first arriving units to seven homes on and near Caleta Road, just to the south of the site of origin. Then he moves with two camp crews and a Newhall company to the northeast to shovel a break west of the housing tract and link it with the existing 50-foot wide firebreak on Liberty ridge.

12:25 p.m. -- Chief Henery calls for tanker planes.
12:28 p.m. -- Chief Henery arrives at the Cornell Road site and reports 40 arc res engulfed and inaccessible.
12:32 p.m. -- Chief Henery asks for 10 more engines. Within another 25 minutes Johnson and his crews have cleared a break between the fire and the tract homes.
12:38 p.m. -- Chief England declares Agoura a Level 1 operation, and the county's fire management organization takes over. Communication, food, repair, fuel and equipment support services start to move in to Station 65.
12:40 p.m. -- Chief England calls for 20 more units.

By now, men and equipment from the 10 other county stations in the area, augmented by units from Hawthorne, Marina Del Rey, Lennox, Newhall, Chatsworth, Ladera Heights and the state Division of Forestry -- among others -- are on the scene and trying to keep ahead of the racing inferno.

1:57 p.m. -- 96 minutes after the first alarm, Chief England, having viewed the scene in a helicopter and judging it a "20 mile-wide fire front that would reach the ocean in a short time," calls for Level 2 status, and command passes to Chief Don Beckman.

"War room" procedures begin in Station 65, complete with map overlays on which structures and topography are scale-drawn.

2:35 p.m. -- The fire reaches Pacific Coast Highway.
By 10:30 p.m. the county dispatcher estimates 23,000 acres aflame, and firefighters are into a nightmare of a night.

By 6 a.m. Tuesday, 700 men are on the scene, and the northern boundary, just south of the Ventura Freeway, is contained.

Tuesday, 10:30 a.m., several flare-ups throughout the area, and the fire crosses into Ventura County.

Tuesday, 3 p.m. -- Winds have diminished to 5-10 mph, and 80 percent containment is reached, with boundaries at Zuma Beach to the south, the Ventura County line on the west, the freeway at the north, and the west side of Mali by Lake on the east. Fog starts to roll in off the coast, and the temperature drops drastically.

Wednesday, 7 a.m., containment is announced.

Friday the fire is under control.

And even as that fire strained resources in the western part of the Los Angeles Basin, Mandeville Canyon pulled from the same regional pool, and the Carbon Canyon and Sierra Madre fires to the east drew major forces from several jurisdictions.

There were logistic problems in Agoura from the beginning. According to Chiefs England and Charles Wells, resources were being severely tapped, and there was some shortage to the south because they had taken the lion's share of equipment up north where it first began."

Wells, who directed operations in the Malibu Lake area, says:"We were unable to get help from Los Angeles City, our nearest neighbor, because they had their own emergency, and Santa Monica sent all their available help there."

Says England: "When we saw the speed it was moving, we tried to release equipment, but we were spread too thin. It was always a matter of moving to the head of the fire, and we could never stay ahead....Thank goodness Ventura didn't have a fire that day, because they were the ones who sent us a big complement: 27 companies, three ground crews and two helicopters and bulldozers."

When they added it up Friday, county fire officials came up with this total for the Agoura battle:
One hundred thirty-six engine companies -- 36 from Los Angeles County, 27 from Ventura County, 20 from nearby cities, 18 from the California Division of Forestry, 30 from the state Office of Emergency and five from Santa Barbara County.
Twenty-eight camp crews -- nine from Los Angeles County, 16 from state forestry and three from Ventura County.
Eight bulldozers from Ventura and Los Angeles County.
Six 500-gallon capacity helicopters -- four from Los Angeles County, two from Ventura.
Six fixed wing tankers with 2000 gallon average capacity, all from the U.S. Forest Service.
Additional planes were available but couldn't be utilized because of the extremely high winds, officials said.

Meanwhile, the same apprehension that Big Milt Johnson felt Monday morning -- plus an evaluation of a heavy commitment of resources on the existing Perris area fires -- had spurred officials at FIRESCOPE in Riverside to call for 25 extra engine crews at 7 a.m. A second, similar request went out about the time the Sierra Madre fire broke out.

FIRESCOPE, a unique coordinating center housed at the state Forestry Division headquarters, functioned with the Federal Forest Services management in the Sierra Madre fire in which 50 engine companies, 32 hand crews, 15 bulldozers, five helicopters and five air tankers battled until the 1,500-acre blaze was controlled Thursday evening. Units from the state and U.S. Forest Service, Sierra Madre, Monrovia, Pasadena, Covina, Burbank, La Verne and Glendale assisted in the operation that employed 1,026 firefighters. The blaze caused a $1.75 million loss in watershed.

The Carbon Canyon fire began in San Bernardino County and was fought by 550 state forestry, U.S. forestry, Orange County and city firefighters before being controlled Tuesday. It threatened munitions bunkers at Aerojet General, caused evacuation in Sleepy Hollow and raced southwest into Orange County through Carbon Canyon and Brea Canyon.

In all, it charred 5,680 acres but caused no official damage, officials said, since the ground was mainly weeds and chaparral. Officials said the totals were 80 engine companies, 22 hand crews, 14 inmate crews from Chino, 18 bulldozers, 13 air tankers and two helicopters.

Nearer to home, the Mandeville Canyon brush fire, earliest of the Monday series, was touched off by 30 mph winds that apparently thrust and sparked high tension wires together shortly after 9:30 a.m. An hour after the first alarm it was out of control on the west, and a helicopter survey patrol reported "it looks like it will burn all the way to Sunset Boulevard." From Mulholland Drive it flashed into Kenter and Mandeville canyons and on to Pacific Palisades, demolishing 20 homes and badly damaging 16 other homes, a parish school and a church retreat house. Three schools and dozens of houses in the fire path were evacuated.

In all, 157 Los Angeles city companies -- the largest number ever called out at one time -- fought the fire, aided by 30 other companies from mutual aid cities. As it burned, the already overtaxed city firefighting resources were called to 14 other major emergency incidents.

The score box here:5,500 acres in a 15 mile perimeter, fought by 450 firefighters, assisted by Santa Monica, Culver City, county and state forestry -- plus six helicopters, 16 bulldozers and four tractors.

By Tuesday morning heavy brush was still ablaze in Mandeville Canyon, but containment was announced Tuesday afternoon. It was another two days before control was reached.

An ominous "special interest" note on the Los Angeles Fire Department's official summary issued Tuesday:
"At 1830 hours Monday, 149 companies were committed to the fire. Twenty-seven light task forces, two triples and three trucks were left to protect the city. During some periods of time when other fires occurred, the available resources were down to 16 light task forces."

Staff writers Helen Smith and Bob Sanders assisted in the preparation of these stories.


Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved.