Survivor honors the dead in 1933 wildfire

Times Staff Writer

The Griffith Park ridge top looked a lot better Thursday than it did the first time John Loa was there.

Happy schoolchildren were laughing this time in the cool morning air. A light breeze swept away the haze to make the view of Glendale’s office buildings sparklingly clear.

That’s not the way it was Oct. 3, 1933, when Loa and 1,500 other Depression-era workers were marched to the ridge top so they could fight a small brush fire that was burning in the canyon beneath the hill.

The men had been summoned from Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration projects building roads and clearing bridle trails in the park. The federal public works effort, administered by Los Angeles County, was providing employment for 3,700 men left jobless by the collapsed national economy.


In midafternoon on that smoggy, 100-degree day, workers were ordered to take their shovels to the fire and toss dirt on the flames. That’s what the first arrivals were doing when a gust of wind sent the fire roaring up the side of the ridge toward the workers.

Hundreds scrambled to safety, and despite initial reports that 33 were killed, the final death toll was 29.

Loa returned to the ridge Thursday to help students plant the last of a row of 29 memorial pine trees honoring the victims of Los Angeles’ deadliest wildfire.

Now 96, he posed for a picture wearing a modern-day helmet as young firefighters from Station 35 crowded around him.


Glancing down the ridge slope next to them, their captain, Robert Vowels, scanned the canyon bottom knowingly.

“This is the kind of place we always tell you, ‘Don’t go there,’ ” Vowels reminded them.

That wasn’t the advice given to the road builders who climbed down the ridge 73 years ago. Their crew foreman told them to take a narrow path leading into the box canyon where a three-acre fire was slowly burning.

“ ‘Smack it out with your shovels and cut a fire break!’ was the order ringing in the ears of the more than 1,500 men, all of them unskilled at brush fire fighting, as they entered the peaceful canyon which was soon to become a hissing, crackling death scene for some of their number,” The Times said the next day.

“ ‘It was just a lark to us,’ groaned one of the survivors later. ‘It didn’t look dangerous then. We laughed about it and started down, to bat the fire out in a hurry.’ ”

When the wind caused a flare-up, a fire warden ordered the men out. As they started back along the narrow trail, they ran into hundreds of others still coming down from the top. There was panic when flames began shooting up the hill.

Those who stumbled on the trail were trampled by those behind them. Those who left the pathway and tried frantically to crawl through thick brush to the top were trapped in dense chaparral.

“The screams of the dying, when the flames, leaping almost 100 feet at a time, caught up with the yelling, struggling welter of humanity on the slope of the valley of death, were too horrible for even the stoutest of the survivors atop the hogback ridge forming the south wall’s top, to hear without weeping or shuddering,” The Times’ front-page story said.


“Before their horrified eyes the ones who had the strength to climb saw their fellow workers enveloped in a sweeping crimson curtain, heard their last agonized screams, saw them die as the withering blast out of the canyon forced them up the trail to safety.”

Loa was working on a conservation corps road project when he and a half-dozen others were told to fight the fire.

“We were working down in the ravine when my crew chief called out to us, saying, ‘You don’t belong to that [work] gang. Get back up here,’ ” he recalled. “When we changed locations . . . our lives were spared. Later, we learned that the other crews we had been working beside had been trapped and lost their lives.”

Loa, of East Los Angeles, became a Union Pacific railroad repair crew foreman and the father of two. His son Leonard accompanied him to Thursday’s tree planting.

About 35 pupils from North Hollywood High School’s Zoo Magnet Center also took part in the planting.

Hollywood-area City Councilman Tom LaBonge was impressed with Loa’s participation.

“He took that shovel like it was 1933 all over again. He took 11 or 12 swipes at pouring dirt in the hole,” LaBonge marveled. “He was real good with the shovel.”

Loa, who says he enjoys visiting the nearby Los Angeles Zoo and Autry Museum of the American West, has assisted Griffith Park rangers in compiling a history of the tragedy.


LaBonge said there were plans to place a marker at Amir’s Garden, about 150 yards from the fire site, which is about a quarter-mile above the park’s Wilson-Harding Golf Complex.

A plaque honoring fire victims placed by the Los Feliz Women’s Club near the park’s Vermont Avenue entrance a month after the disaster eventually disappeared.

A bronze sculpture commissioned by the WPA to honor conservation corps workers was dedicated in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but only lasted three years before it was destroyed.

It didn’t fall victim to fire, however. It washed away in a flood.



Begin text of infobox

Tragic news, 1933

This is the first paragraph of The Times’ story reporting the fire:

“Death rode a twisting wind into a canyon of Griffith Park yesterday and when rescue workers at the scene of a brush fire in the park’s canyons recapitulated late last night, it was found that at least thirty-three men had gone to their deaths and more than 100 had suffered serious injuries in battling the blaze.”

Los Angeles Times