It Is Time to Complete Your Brush Clearance, Pacific Palisades

By John Wilson
Special to the Palisades News

October 23, 1978, 9:41 a.m.

The Santa Ana winds had been blowing for several days and everyone was on edge. Suicides had gone up and violent encounters increased markedly during this hot, windy weather.

The first call came in at 9:41 a.m. to the Los Angeles City Fire Dispatch Center. The dispatcher switched his radio mike on and broadcasted: “Mountain Patrol and Units concerned. A report of a brush fire in the mountain area on Mulholland Highway at the 405 Freeway. Stations 71, 19, 59, 108, 109, battalion 9, battalion 10, dozer 108, fire 4, fire 5…”

These words had special meaning to our firemen. They knew that homes would burn and possibly lives would be lost over the next 24 hours.

A brush fire on October 23, 1978, destroyed 16 homes in Pacific Palisades and the St. Matthew’s Church sanctuary. Photo: James Kenney
A brush fire on October 23, 1978, destroyed 16 homes in Pacific Palisades and the St. Matthew’s Church sanctuary. Photo: James Kenney

They were right. Eventually, 60 homes were destroyed in Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, along with the Chapel at St. Matthew’s Church and part of the Mill Building. Additionally, several buildings at the Boy Scout Camp Josepho in Rustic Canyon were destroyed.

We, however, got lucky: no one died. We got lucky because as the roaring fire approached Sunset Boulevard, the Santa Ana wind died and a sweet ocean breeze swept over us in mid-afternoon.

During this time, I was a Deputy Los Angeles City Attorney whose job it was, among others, to advise the code enforcement section of the Los Angeles City Fire Department. I had the opportunity to attend a post-analysis seminar conducted to critique the Fire Department’s actions during this fire.

The Command Staff was both laudatory and brutal in their critiques. The good and the bad all came out, but in the end, everyone agreed that, but for the wind change, the Palisades would have looked a lot different the next day.

Certainly, the wind, the delays in dispatching certain mutual-aid fire trucks, shake roofing material on houses was reviewed and highlighted.

But the big focus was upon the citizens of Pacific Palisades.

The analysis showed that some homeowners were just plain lazy, or fatalistic, about cleaning the combustible brush away from their homes. One homeowner just flat out refused to clean the brush around her house because it was too beautiful to destroy.

One scientist calculated that if an acre of mountain brush were to burn it would generate enough energy to equal a one megaton bomb going off. I have had the experience to feel this energy and I have watched how destructive it can be. Add the fact that a good wind will blow embers a mile down-wind, and that when a large fire gets going, it often creates its own weather system.

Sometimes, the fire will pull all the oxygen out of a canyon as it creates a firestorm above the canyon. I experienced that in the Bel-Air fire in 1961, which destroyed 480 homes.

We know, of course, that many people can perish in runaway brush and forest fires. In happens every summer in our western states, and back in 1933, 33 firemen died and 150 were injured while fighting a brush fire close to here.

Thus, fair warning, Pacific Palisades. Now is the time to act. Don’t tell me you are too old to clear the brush around your property. Hire someone or call your local City Councilman for suggestions.

Do it now! Do it before some nut starts playing with matches in the hills above you.

(John Wilson is a lifelong resident of Pacific Palisades.)

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