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Flashback: Reliving Moments in L.A. County History : 1961: The Bel-Air/Brentwood Fire

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It was an upwardly mobile disaster with its origins in a trash heap and its last gasp in some of the most exclusive real estate in Southern California.

Shortly after 8 a.m., a construction crew working in Sherman Oaks noticed the smoke and flames in a nearby pile of rubbish. Within minutes, Santa Ana winds gusting up to 60 m.p.h. would send burning brush aloft and ultimately sear Nov. 6, 1961, into Los Angeles’ civic memory.

Life Magazine called it “A Tragedy Trimmed in Mink,” and glittering stars of stage and screen scrambled to do battle with the blaze that swept through Bel-Air and Brentwood that day.

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Flaming embers danced from roof to wood-shingled roof, spreading the fire across the Santa Monica Mountains to the south and into the affluent Westside enclaves.

In Bel-Air, some film stars stood their ground against the encroaching flames. Maureen O'Hara risked her life to remain at her home and hose down her wooden roof. Fred MacMurray battled the flames and contained damage to just a portion of his home. But comedian Joe E. Brown saw his home burn to the ground. Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor also lost their homes.

Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon and his chief researcher, Al Moscow, were working on a draft of Nixon’s “Six Crises” when the flames threatened his rented house on North Bundy Drive. Nixon and Moscow took to the roof to water down the wood shingles, saving the home.

More than 300 police officers helped evacuate 3,500 residents during the 12-hour fire, and more than 2,500 firefighters battled the blaze, pumping water from neighborhood swimming pools to douse flames in some areas. Pockets of the fire smoldered for several days.

Even as firefighters battled what was to become the Bel-Air disaster, a separate fire had erupted simultaneously in Santa Ynez Canyon to the west, further straining local firefighting resources. That blaze was contained the next day after consuming nearly 10,000 acres and nine structures and burning to within a mile of the inferno raging in Bel-Air and Brentwood.

At least 200 firefighters were injured but no one was killed and 78% of the homes were saved.

Still, the fires were the fifth worst conflagration in the nation’s history at the time, burning 16,090 acres, destroying more than 484 homes and 190 other structures and causing an estimated $30 million in damage.

Their causes were never determined.


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