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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

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

photo credit:

Forty 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.

photo credit: Palisades Post

Above: Via de la Paz, looking north from the business district. 

I was a student at Palisades High School. I pulled this and 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 Mountains 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: Karl Edward Dean

Every year Southern California deals with brush fires. In fact, a few years back, another fire broke (below) next to the 405 Freeway - very close to where the Mandeville Fire began 40 years earlier. Fortunately, it was put out quickly.

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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.


.© 2018 - originally posted 10/23/2008

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