The Bel Air Fire of 1961

“There it is,” says Daddy as we drive along Sunset Blvd towards Bel Air.

Wow. Along the top of the hills are thin ribbons of fire, bright orange against black hills and black sky.

All day long we’ve been listening to reports of a fire that started in the hills above Bel Air. My school, Bellagio Road Elementary is there and some of my friends live there, but we’re safe here in Brentwood because there’s a huge freeway between us.

It’s night now and Daddy said the flames would look beautiful. We can’t see them from our house, just smell the smoke a little. I was kind of scared, but excited when he asked, “Jeanette, would you like to drive with me up to see it?”

Mom hadn’t wanted us to go, but Daddy assured her, “Don’t worry, I’ll stay far away from the fire.”

I love it when Daddy and I go somewhere alone. Sometimes it’s because he’s had a fight with Mom. He knows if he takes one of us that Mom won’t worry, and we usually just go out for ice cream. Their fights aren’t bad, I know she just said something that made him mad and he needs to cool off. So, even though it’s for a weird reason, I still love any chance to be his “special girl.” When we’re alone, we have nice long talks about everything, like how I shouldn’t hate my long nose, how to be popular, stories about his friends in high school, tough times growing up, how nice is mother was, even about what he believes about God, you name it! He’s so handsome and confident and just seems like he knows how to fix everything and has all the answers. I don’t know why he picked me this time, instead of Gilda or Mary. I guess he figures Gilda’s a teenager and likes to stay in her room reading books. Mary’s only 7, and would be too scared. I’m 11 so I guess that’s the perfect age to go along with him on an adventure. I’m the lucky one!

Tonight he tells me about how the Santa Ana winds that blow in from the desert in the fall can cause fires. The smoke smells stronger now as we cross the freeway. Bel Air is a super-rich neighborhood in the hills. It’s a lot richer than ours. Most the houses in our neighborhood are new and medium sized, even though there are a few old mansions just north of Sunset. Bel Air has a golf course, and many huge mansions with gates and lots of land. A lot of Hollywood stars live there, I even go to school with a few of their children, like James Garner’s and Alan Sherman’s daughters. I’m sure the fire department will put the fire out soon, they wouldn’t let anything happen to the rich people up there.

We drive east past and enter the Bel Air Gate. A fireman stops us, and says we shouldn’t be there. Dad tells him casually; okay we’ll turn around soon and leave shortly. I can tell Daddy really wants to see the fire. I feel a shaking in the pit of my stomach, exciting and scary. He kind of tricked the fireman, but I know Daddy will make it through here. We drive up into the winding hills. “See that spark?” Daddy says, “And these dry pines? And look at a lot of these roofs. They’re made of wood shingles. They can catch on fire really easily. That’s why when I had our house built I got a rock roof.” I don’t like the way our flat rock roof looks, but Daddy was smart to get one.

We finally wind our way to the top of a hill where we can see the flames leaping and roaring across on another hill. It’s really beautiful. Daddy gets really quiet and stares. “I wanted you to see this, because it’s a once in a lifetime thing,” he says.

We drive up the hill along the top. Now we can see flames are really close to some houses. Fire engines are screaming. Daddy says, “Take a look at this street. Many of these houses won’t be here tomorrow. We better go.”

As he turns the car around I stare at the houses, now they’re here, but which ones will burn down, I wonder. Things can be beautiful and all of a sudden they’re gone. What a strange feeling, like we’re ahead of time and before time, right now.

And right now the fire is really taking off. It’s a good time to leave and Daddy knows just when to. As we make our way down the hill we pass the area with pines and shake roof houses and they are on fire! It happened so fast. I can’t believe it, we were just there and the fire was far away.

“Can you believe we were just there?” Daddy exclaims. “That’s how dangerous sparks can be. These Santa Ana winds make everything bone dry. All these houses in the hills, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

As we drive out onto Sunset Blvd. I ask, “Could our house catch fire too?”

Daddy says, “No, we’re safe, cause we’ve got the huge San Diego Freeway between us and Bel Air. Oh, and let’s not worry your mother with everything we saw. You know how she gets hysterical.”

“Oh, I won’t.” I like that we have a secret. Daddy was able to whip us through the burning canyons, in and out, around the firemen and flames like a fighter pilot. He’s amazing.

The next morning, the fire is still just in the north part of Bel Air. The bus picks us up for school. My little sister Mary and I go to Bellagio, which isn’t in the part of Bel Air that’s burning. Gilda goes to Junior High, which is further west on the Brentwood side. At school, we can smell the smoke, but the fire is behind the hills from us. We’re all a bit worried, but since the grownups say it’s safe I guess it is. We’re all talking about it, but no one we know has lost their house. I don’t mention how my dad and I drove up there last night, that’s our secret.

But just about an hour after we get to school our teacher says we should evacuate for our safety. “There’s not danger, we just want to be careful and let the firefighters do their job.” The teachers tell us how important it is to be quiet and calm, and we do what they say. We have to go onto the playground and stand in lines until busses can come. Everyone is pretty quiet. I keep looking up to the hills behind us. It does smell smokier than when we came.

I wonder how my mom will get us. Does she know?

As we line up in front of the school to get on the busses, the Principal says, “The busses will take you to Brentwood Elementary and your parents will pick you up there.”

On our way, I hope my mom can find us. Brentwood Elementary is on our side of the freeway and pretty far south of Sunset. It feels like another world, from my neighborhood. Not as pretty, not up in the hills, but I remember we lived here for a few months in an apartment while our house was being built a few years ago. I find my sister Mary and we wait on the playground. The teachers have us play till our parents come.

When Mom arrives she tells us, “Now don’t worry, but the fire department wants us to evacuate. It seems the fire has jumped the freeway. I called your father and he’s on his way home from work. I got us a motel.”

Wow! This is unbelievable! How did this happen? The fire jumped the freeway? That’s amazing! A motel? Really? And Mom is being so calm, that’s so strange. She’s usually so crazy and yelling all the time.

“The most important thing is that we’re all safe,” says Mom. “Possessions don’t matter, people do.”

“But Mom, my Lambie!” I can’t let him burn. She knows that I love my stuffed animal more than anything else in the world.

“Okay, now be calm, “ she says. “I’m going to take you girls to the motel, Gilda will be the babysitter and the fire department says there’s enough time for people to get a few possessions. I’ll get all your stuffed animals and few clothes and pictures. Now just be good and watch TV till I get back. Okay?”

“Okay, just get my Lambie.”

Mom drops us off at a motel and we wait in our room for her. It’s strange. We can hear sirens all around us and now we can smell smoke even here. We watch the fire on TV.

Pretty soon Mom comes back. Oh, I’m so relieved to hug my Lambie. That’s all that matters. Plus I hope our house is okay.

“Is Daddy coming soon?”

Mom tells us he’s up at the house trying to hose things down but he promises he’ll leave if it gets dangerous. We wait, till it’s dark but he doesn’t come back. Mom reminds us he promised he wouldn’t stay if the fire was too close. All night long I worry. On TV we see how the fire has crossed the freeway and is burning the hills behind our house, and the next canyons over, Kenter Canyon and Mandeville Canyon. Many houses have burned down. I wonder if ours will too. Mom is still acting calm. It’s really scary but finally I fall asleep clutching Lambie.

In the morning Daddy finally arrives.

“I saved our house!”

“What happened?”

“Me, and Jay Sebring and Al Hess stayed up all night hosing the houses down. The firefighters knew we were up there and though they finally told us it wasn’t safe, they left us alone. We helped them get water out of Al’s pool. The hills were burning all around our neighborhood. I kept putting sparks out on the Zucker’s roof and Al saved the Podeyn’s house. They had all evacuated when the firemen told them they should, I guess they didn’t want to take the chance. But if we hadn’t been there they would have lost their houses.”

Wow, my dad’s a hero. It scares me that he stayed up there, but he’s so strong and knows just what to do. Those dads who stayed remind me of the soldiers in World War 2. Fighting the enemy no matter what. Winning.

“Can we go back?”

“Yes, now that the winds have died down and they’ve contained the fire. But I want to warn you, everything is burned. It said on the news that this has been the worst fire in all Los Angeles history. 484 homes were burned down and another 190 were damaged. 16,000 acres destroyed. I’ve never seen a more destructive fire.”

We drive slowly up Bundy Drive, north of Sunset into the canyon. As we get further up I can see the hills on either side are burned. On the hill to the west there are burned shells of houses in Kenter Canyon. We drive up our steep hill to our house. All the hills are completely black. There are no trees or bushes. It smells awful. Our pretty neighborhood is so scary and ugly, but at least our houses are there.

“Don’t worry, it will grow back,” says Daddy. It’s hard to believe, but I know he’s always right.

A few days later we return to school. A lot of kids’ houses burned down. I feel so sorry for them. It would be terrible to lose your house and have all your clothes and toys burn up. What would I have done if Lambie burned up? That’s too terrible to think about.

Mom tells me that Linda, one of the girls in our Girl Scout Troop lost everything when her house burned down. The leader wants everyone to donate one of our toys to her at our next meeting.

It’s hard to pick one of my toys to give to Linda, but I finally make the decision. It’s not one of my favorites, but I want all my toys.

At the next Girl Scout meeting Linda looks so sad and scared. I wonder what it would be like to lose everything cause your house burned down. I feel so sorry for her. I hope my toy will help, but I don’t think it will. She looks lost. It’s really scary. I’m glad I’m not her. I’m glad my dad saved our house. When I give her my toy I smile as if I want to give it, but I don’t really. I guess this is a little of what she feels like. Will she like my toy as much as I do? I’ll miss it.

Addendum: This story is an imaginative recreation of my childhood memories. Since writing it, I’ve studied the LA Fire department report which points to an error in the timeline of my story, the drive with my father that I remembered happening on the night before the fire crossed over the 405 freeway into Brentwood. I’m guessing that memory came from another time that later became condensed in my mind. However, this story does represent the “emotional truth” of my childhood experience of the Bel Air Fire of 1961, a traumatic time for our community.