On a Fair Day, All He Saw Was Flames

Some things are frightening. Like driving down a one-way street and seeing a car speeding directly toward you.

Other things are frightening without danger to yourself. Like seeing someone's house burn to the ground--even a stranger's--destroying a family's lifetime treasure of material and immaterial valuables, jewelry and mementos of trips, the stereo center and photos of children when they were young.

Or seeing five houses burn that way.

It must have been 14 or 15 years ago when I took the family, including my then early-teen-age daughter and her school chum, to the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona on a swelteringly hot day. There was a breeze, but not inside the fairground. Early in the afternoon, we saw smoke in a couple of directions, far away but sure signs of what was going on out there.

In mid-afternoon we were near the clock tower, waiting for the daughter and her friend, who had been turned loose to enjoy the midway by themselves for half an hour. The idea was to get a cold lemonade or an iced tea and start for home. A slight commotion--a rustle of gasps and soft exclamations--made us turn the way other people were looking.

Just outside the fairground, across a street (probably McKinley Avenue) was a hill with houses on top. Across the base of the hill was an irregular line of flickering yellow, with wispy smoke above it. The line was moving up the hill toward the houses.

It looked completely harmless; the fire seemed scarcely as high as one's shoe tops. Dozens, probably hundreds of us stood and watched, more for lack of anything better to do than because we thought something was going to happen.

The yellow line touched the planters along the wall of one house and the bushes and flowers blazed up. It seemed like nothing serious; you've sat around bigger campfires.

After about half a minute, flames leaped up the wall, curled around the eaves, scampered across the roof. Within another minute or so tongues of fire burst out the windows.

The flickering yellow line reached another house . . . and another . . . another . . . within minutes five houses were fiercely ablaze.

It couldn't have been 10 minutes--it may have been only five--before roofs began to fall. When they did the flames began to sink back into the bed of blazing coals held inside the foundation walls like the remnants of a campfire in its fire pit.

Quick but too Late

The local fire department got trucks there within minutes but even that quick wasn't quick enough. Once the houses burst fully into flame nothing could be done.

The fires died. I wasn't keeping notes but I don't think a quarter of an hour had passed since we saw that first tiny yellow line across the base of the hill. Five homes were gone; five families' lives were grievously wounded.

And it didn't seem real. It took a heavy mental effort to realize that this wasn't a movie, that the special-effects people wouldn't come over the hill and start striking the set. They were real houses, lived in by real people who had real lives and were suffering real grief.

One thing that kindled and nurtured that feeling of unreality was the thought: How could such a tiny line of fire, hardly more than ankle high, have turned so quickly into such volcanoes of leaping flame? Obviously, it doesn't take much.

The incident solidified an opinion in this reporter's mind, an opinion that has become, if anything, stronger over the years since. Wood construction ignites incredibly easily and burns incredibly fast. Stucco walls and roofs of clay tile, concrete shake or "rock" (composition topped with aggregate) may not be 100% protection but they help a lot. And most important is the roof.

The Bel-Air fire of 1961 destroyed 484 homes. Most of the very few that escaped were of that type. The same is true of most of our canyon blazes.

Inside a city? Fifty buildings in downtown Anaheim were destroyed by a fire that was spread, in great part, by burning brands blown onto nearby roofs. Pictures at the time showed stucco-walled and tile-roofed houses standing amid the rubble.

Baldwin Hills not two weeks ago? A Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman told me that 90% of the buildings in the burned area had wood shake shingle roofs. None was roofed with tile or concrete shake but a number had rock roofs and "very few" of those were even as much as 50% destroyed. On one street, Don Carlos, there were 26 homes; the one that survived had stucco walls, eaves that were boxed and stuccoed, and a rock roof.

Why That Reaction?

Nowadays, a reporter who has covered fires of all kinds for a lot of years wonders a little at the way that Pomona incident affected him.

Possibly it was partly the abominable heat, the oven-closeness of the day. Perhaps it was partly worry about the absent daughter. Mostly, it was an over-active imagination. Would a turn of the wind sweep the fire into the fairground? Would there be an evacuation and, if so, how and when would we connect with our daughter--or if? Worse, would there be a panic, people fleeing, piling up in the exits. . .?

Rationally, one knew it wouldn't happen, but who claims that amid such an event the mind is truly rational?

By the time the homes had burned down to beds of coals fit for giants to broil steaks over and everyone began to breathe again and to look around, there was the daughter standing beside me. Irrationally--or was it?--I grabbed her and squeezed.

Driving back from Pomona that day, we saw pillars of smoke in several directions. The nearest was just too far from the freeway to see whether there were any houses in the fire's path. I was glad of that.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World