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Sunday, October 23, 2011

33 Years Ago Today: October 23, 1978 Mandeville Canyon Fire

photo credit:

Thirty-three years ago today, October 23 1978, a fire broke out at 9:41am near Mulholland Drive and the 405 Frwy in the Santa Monica Mountains. Stoked by Santa Ana winds and very hot, dry conditions within a few minutes a large brush fire started moving westward.

photo credit: Julie Keese

This is one of the very few color photos I was able to find of the fire. Looks like it was taken from the roof of what's now the CVS pharmacy in the Palisades. The old RTD bus is at the intersection of Sunset Blvd and Swathmore.

I was a student at Palisades High School. I pulled the next few photos from our school yearbook.

Thirty homes were destroyed in
Brentwood and Pacific Palisades - it could have easily been ten times that number. By contrast, the 1991 Oakland Hills fire destroyed 3800 homes - and killed 25 people.

Here's another color photo. It was actually a postcard, and was for sale for several years afterwards. The back of the postcard reads: "Santa Monica Mountais on fire-Fall 1978. The fire is nearly 10 miles wide in this photo taken from Venice, Calif. Photo and copyright by Jeffrey Stanton."

photo credit: Michael A Pearson

Every year Southern California deals with brush fires. In fact, three years ago today, another fire broke (below) next to the 405 Freeway - very close to where the Mandeville Fire began 30 years earlier. Fortunately, it was put out quickly.

photo credit:

My family's home came very close to being destroyed in the
Mandeville fire. A few things I remember:

1) the
speed of the fire. When I got home from High School, I literally thought the fire might be near our home sometime in the next day or two. We were evacuating within 2 hours.

2) the
size of the fire. There is something terrifying about a 50-60 wall of flames several miles wide coming towards you. Trying to defend your home with a garden hose felt like a bad joke.

3) the
smell of the fire. I get an awful feeling everytime I smell a fire - bad memories of October 1978.

4) the
SOUND of the fire. This was perhaps the scariest thing of all. I still remember the low, loud roar. It was surreal.

Our family was very fortunate that the winds shifted just was the fire approached our street. Other families were not so lucky - loosing not only their homes, but everything inside.

photo credit:

The Marek fire (above) in the San Fernando Valley in September of 2008 was a reminder that brush fires in Southern California are not a question of "if" ... but "when."

As a Christian, I'm reminded that brush fires involve issues of environmental stewardship, protection of lives, protection of property, understanding the specific climate (Mediterranean) and topography (mountainous) of Southern California. Brush fires are NOT forest fires. Remember Smokey the Bear? Not the same here. In Southern California several of the native plants are designed to burn (there's that pesky "design" again).

One of my professors at UCLA stated that a fire every ten years is significantly less dangerous, less intense than one every fifty years.

"The probability for an intense fast running fire increases dramatically as the fuels [brush] exceed twenty years of age. Indeed, half-century old chaparral - heavily laden with dead mass - is calculated to burn with 50 times more intensity than 20-year old chaparral."
Mike Davis "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster" pg 101

I have to now agree that it would make sense to have controlled burns of large uninhabited mountainous areas every 10-12 years - but most experts agree it will never happen - it would be political suicide.


.© 2011 - originally posted 10/23/2008


Anonymous said...

Of course, I remember this well. It was a beautiful day--warnm, dry, good waves (I was at the beach at one point). But, it was the winds that drove this disaster, as the fire rose up the hillside of one canyon and over into the next, marching across the mountains. I remember the fire coming close to Sunset, across from Pali, in Temescal Canyon, which is the canyon I lived in. It never occured to me a fire could come close to the house, and yet there it was only 2 blocks away. Not as close as I believe it came to you, way up in the hills, but a real surprise nevertheless. Fast forward to May 2009, and my mother and her husband were forced to evacuate with 10s of thousands of others when an enormous fire devastated the hills above Santa Barbara. Dozens of homes were destroyed. Fortunately, her home was spared, although the fire was just around the corner and could have run through the arroyo that is her back yard right up to the house with its shake roof. That is what could have happened to us in 1978. Controlled burns do work, and are done in some places--though usually not close to neighborhoods--but you are right the danger is great, both environmentally and politically. Living as I do now in the soggy East, I laugh and shake my head when they talk here about a "drought" and a 3 or 5 inch "rain deficit." Gene

Anonymous said...

Thank you for allowing me to post: I lived off El Hito Circle, I distinctly recall standing on my parent's roof hosing it down as the flames came over the hill and into a gully full of Fire Fighters .... Man ! They have a lot of Yables !!

Tim H said...

I was a student at UCLA and saw the fire starting while walking to class on Bruin Walk. The winds were indeed high and it was ignited by a fallen power line up near Mulholland Drive. I snapped a few photos with a pocket camera that I carried along in my backpack - will send you some scans if you'd like. My email is