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The Bel-Air fire of 1961 hit Hollywood's celebrity elite, spurred major changes in fire safety rules

The Bel-Air fire of 1961 hit Hollywood's celebrity elite, spurred major changes in fire safety rules
Firefighters are not able to save a home on Roscomare Road in 1961. The same area was threatened by fire in 2017. (Los Angeles Times)

The brush fire that burned several homes in Bel-Air on Wednesday echoed back to one of Los Angeles’ most destructive fires, which hit the same neighborhood in 1961.

The Bel-Air fire ravaged Bel-Air and Brentwood over two days, destroying more than 500 homes — including those of some celebrities.

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In a headline, Life magazine later called the fire “A Tragedy Trimmed in Mink” in a nod to the upscale neighborhoods it scorched.

The blaze resulted in major changes in local fire safety laws, including brush clearance rules and an eventual city ban on wood-shingle roofs. The roofs were highly flammable and allowed the flames to quickly spread through neighborhoods.

Because of heavy lobbying from the roofing industry, it took more than two more decades for Los Angeles to completely ban wood-shingle roofs.

Nov. 6, 1961: Advancing flames force former Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, to leave their rented home on Bundy Drive in Brentwood. Before leaving, Nixon hosed down the roof.
Nov. 6, 1961: Advancing flames force former Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, to leave their rented home on Bundy Drive in Brentwood. Before leaving, Nixon hosed down the roof. (Los Angeles Times)

Here are some stories from the Bel-Air fire of 1961, pulled from the pages of The Times:

• Film stars stood their ground against the encroaching flames, alongside other residents. Maureen O’Hara and Kim Novak risked their lives to douse flames with garden hoses. Fred MacMurray took studio workers with him from the set of “My Three Sons” to help evacuate neighbors and his family from their two-story colonial house in Brentwood. Then MacMurray stayed to help firefighters cut down brush around his Halvern Drive home, confining the fire damage to a portion of his house.

• Burt Lancaster lost his home on Linda Flora Drive, but not his $250,000 art collection, which happened to be on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

• The lush Bel-Air canyons were covered in ash, the hills burned bare. Two chimneys from Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Bellagio Place home stood like eerie sentinels over the house’s charred remains. “My three dark minks, my white mink, my sables, some really very nice little jewels are gone,” Gabor complained to the press in New York, where she had been when the fire hit. She flew home, where — with a shovel in hand, a 10-carat diamond on one finger and pearls around her neck — she sifted through the rubble.

Nov. 7, 1961: Zsa Zsa Gabor's home on Bellagio Place was destroyed by the fire while she was in New York. Gabor returned to salvage what she could — while wearing a diamond and pearls.
Nov. 7, 1961: Zsa Zsa Gabor's home on Bellagio Place was destroyed by the fire while she was in New York. Gabor returned to salvage what she could — while wearing a diamond and pearls. (Bob Martin / Los Angeles Mirror)

• The flames leapfrogged through the verdant canyons of Brentwood and over Chalon Road to Mandeville Canyon, where actor Robert Taylor escaped with his dog, Henry, from his 113-acre ranch. Ranch hands took his 11 horses and two hunting dogs to makeshift corrals on the football field at Paul Revere Middle School.

“My wife, Ursula, packed the children, Terry, 6, and Tessa, 2, and a few clothes in the car,” Taylor told a Times reporter. “I grabbed my passport and shaving kit. We drove to Ronnie Reagan’s place.” Taylor’s home and 150 others in the canyon were spared. Taylor called it a miracle.

• Actor Richard Boone didn’t believe in miracles and spent the night manning garden hoses at his ranch and at those of two neighbors.

Boone had lost his Pacific Palisades home to a fire two years before. But this one was spared.

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