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In this blaze, fame couldn’t stop the flames

Times Staff Writer

Among the most notorious California wildfires, the Bel-Air/Brentwood fire began in a trash heap 45 years ago this month -- a blaze that left hundreds of the rich and famous homeless in what Life magazine called “A Tragedy Trimmed in Mink” and prompted brush clearance laws and an eventual city ban on wood shingle roofs.

On a warm November morning in 1961, a Sherman Oaks construction crew, working just north of Bel-Air, noticed smoke and flames coming from a nearby pile of rubbish. Within minutes, Santa Ana winds swept burning embers from roof to roof, spreading fire across the affluent enclaves of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Before it was contained less than two days later, it destroyed nearly 500 homes worth about $30 million. No lives were lost.

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.

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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. Comedian Joe E. Brown watched his home burn to the ground “just as quick as that,” he told The Times.

Former Vice President Richard Nixon was in his leased home on Bundy Drive, working on his book “Six Crises” when the seventh crisis hit. After watering down the roof, he and his wife, Pat, hurried away.

Composer-conductor-pianist Lukas Foss, a member of the UCLA faculty, lost his Brentwood home filled with his original musical compositions. Nobel laureate chemist Willard Libby lost much of his work in his Bel-Air home.

Despite efforts of more than 2,500 firefighters, by the next afternoon the blaze had consumed nearly 16,000 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 3,500 residents. 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.

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“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 and a 10-carat diamond on one finger and pearls around her neck, she sifted through the rubble.

Many of these accounts come from The Times’ coverage of the fire and recent interviews with those who lived through it.

Nov. 6, 1961, was seared into the memory of Frank Borden. He was a 24-year-old firefighter with three years’ experience when buzzers and bells went off at Fire Station 92 on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles.

“I was really excited; it was my first big fire,” said Borden, 68, now a retired firefighter and director of operations at the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum in Hollywood. “It was hot, dry and windy,” Borden said, “all the elements of a conflagration.”

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It was just after 8 a.m. during the morning briefing “when we saw a big cloud of smoke rise over the mountains,” Borden said, “and we were ready to go before we even received the signal.

“The fire was blowing sideways. Four of us were standing on the tailboard of the engine when Capt. Jack Skinner told us to button up and hunker down before we drove through a 50-foot wall of fire. I ducked my head and held on for dear life.” One of his pant legs caught fire but was quickly put out.

Bel-Air fire hydrants hissed -- and stopped. “No water came out,” Borden said. Broken water lines and panic-stricken residents who had turned on sprinklers and used garden hoses sapped the area of water pressure.

Powerless to save a corner house at Roscomare and Anzio roads, Borden and other firefighters did save the garage.

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“A low-flying four-engine plane dropped borate on us and the surrounding neighborhood,” Borden said. “But it’s not very effective on buildings, only brush and vegetation.”

The wind-whipped fire ignited trees, telephone poles and rooftops at the rate of 13 acres a minute before shooting across the Sepulveda Pass.

“We thought that the San Diego Freeway that was under construction at the time would stop the fire from going into Brentwood,” Borden said. But it didn’t.

The convent and art center at Mount St. Mary’s College burned. Although the roofs were of tile, thousands of birds’ nests that had been built between the tile and wood sheeting ignited. Freeway construction crews moved in heavy equipment, and several 5,000-gallon water trucks helped save the rest of the campus.

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Sister Ignatia Cordis, an artist who had designed the art building, saw most of her watercolors go up in flames. She later captured the destroyed building itself on canvas. Her rendering of charred walls and scorched debris hangs in Hannon Parlor, the school’s boardroom, as a symbol of rebirth.

Gloria Delson was drawn by Brentwood’s Kenter Canyon landscape, sheltering environment and elementary school.

“We had just moved into our house on Kenfield Avenue three weeks earlier,” said Delson, a contemporary art dealer who now lives in Hollywood. “I was talking to my husband on the phone when I looked out my window and saw the nuns from Mount St. Mary’s College running down the hill. I didn’t know what was happening but told my husband, ‘If they’re moving, so am I.’ ”

Delson grabbed her 3-year-old son from his sickbed and ran out the door.

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“We were lucky,” she said in a recent interview. “Our rock roof probably saved our house.”

Around 1 p.m., as firefighters battled the raging fire, a separate blaze erupted in the Topanga Canyon area to the west, further stretching firefighting resources.

Before it was contained the next day, it had destroyed 10,000 acres and nine structures and burned within a mile of Fernwood.

Meanwhile, flames leapfrogged through the lush 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.

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“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.

Another canyon resident, 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.

Three weeks later, as residents finally began clearing the ash and debris, singer Dennis Day handed out checks totaling $11,000 to the Police and Firemen’s Relief Assns., contributions from grateful homeowners.

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After the fire, more fire stations were built along Mulholland Drive. Water supplies were improved. Homeowners installed rooftop sprinklers and swimming-pool pumps.

Bel-Air resident Harriett S. Weaver took it upon herself to fight for better fire safety laws, leading to the first citywide brush-clearing ordinance.

Because of heavy lobbying from the roofing industry, it took more than two more decades before Los Angeles completely banned wood shingle roofs.

Only the chimney remained standing at Louise Whitehead’s house on Tigertail Road, where she hung a big sign: “Hurry, Santa, don’t be late. My Christmas list is rather extensive.”

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com


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