The Terrible California Fires
HOMES blazed like torches. Flames leapfrogged from house to house. People ran for their lives, as fireballs swirled past survivors. Where was this catastrophe? Within sight of Los Angeles—one of the world’s major cities!
An extremely dry summer, and winds gusting up to eighty miles an hour, combined to turn the smallest fire into a roaring inferno. Smoke rose 10,000 feet into the sky. Some 150 miles to the southeast, other angry smoke clouds hung over San Diego County. Few residents of southern California were out of sight of a major blaze.
In less than a week fires burned 680 square miles of southern California—the equivalent of an area ten miles wide and sixty-eight miles long! It destroyed more than four hundred homes, and took ten lives.
One major fire started about 10:30 on the morning of Friday, September 25, in the hills west of the San Fernando Valley, where about half the population of greater Los Angeles lives. In five minutes it swept across more than fifty acres. Within an hour, 250 acres were afire. The flames whipped across the mountains through prosperous Malibu Canyon. They danced sixty feet into the air, sweeping mercilessly toward the Pacific Ocean at speeds of up to eighty miles an hour. Flames, visible for almost forty miles, consumed luxurious homes in a matter of minutes. Sparks and burning firebrands, driven by the wind, carried the fire. Wooden shingles, ripped from the roofs of burning houses, were flung, still afire, onto other homes hundreds of yards downwind.
In its relentless race toward the sea, the fire leaped across the main Pacific Coast highway, and consumed clusters of houses along the beach. At one time twenty expensive Malibu homes were burning at the same time!
From the air the coastal plain resembled a region devastated by war. The heat was so intense that window glass, and even metal, melted in the flames.
One Malibu resident felt confident her home would not burn. “Suddenly,” she reports, “the clouds turned coal black, and were laced with fire.” The fire came over the top of the mountain ridge, about a half mile away, then “within a matter of seconds it was all around us, and the wind sounded like a locomotive coming through the canyon. We drove out with fire on both sides of the road, without even stopping for my purse.”
Nothing was salvageable. The only thing that survived were two little ducks, found sitting motionless but unburned, on a pond filled with charred debris. She said: “They were the only cheerful thing in the whole mess.”
But this was not the only fire. Near Newhall, some twenty miles inland from where the Malibu fire started, roaring winds felled power lines, and sparked a second disastrous blaze. A third started about ten miles to the west, near Thousand Oaks. By midday Saturday the three fires had met, to form a thirty-five-mile crescent of flame around the western end of the San Fernando Valley. This merged fire had a perimeter of 147 miles!
“It is not unusual to have brush fires here in the valley,” Forrest Tanner said, “and seeing smoke in the area is not uncommon. What really woke people up around here was when we heard that houses were on fire in Chatsworth, and that the fire was completely out of control.” In Chatsworth thirty-five homes burned—houses in the $70,000 class.
A resident of one of the first Chatsworth homes to burn said: “I thought we had nothing to worry about. I didn’t think about watering the roof—we never had a drop of water on the place.” He pointed to a small round hill behind his house, and said: “I was on that hill less than five minutes before the fire, and I didn’t see a thing! There was a lot of smoke, and I thought we’d better get going, but I didn’t see the fire.”
Within less than five minutes, he said, the wind whipped the fire like a blowtorch through the grass on the hill. His house burned to the ground. The fire blew from one house to the next. The roofs would go, then the entire house would be consumed in fifteen to twenty minutes. On the south side of one street fourteen new homes burned. A fifteenth, in the middle of the row of burned houses, completely escaped the fire!
People in many areas of the world will think it strange that such houses are not made of stone, with roofs of tile, but wood is the normal construction material here.
The San Diego Fire
About 150 miles to the southeast of the Los Angeles blaze, another terrifying fire was being whipped by the same winds. It started on Saturday, high in the Cleveland National Forest. The winds had knocked over a power pole, and ignited the dry brush. Whipped along by gusts that reached seventy-five miles an hour, it roared up mountainsides, and down canyons, through lush valleys, and into residential areas.
An estimated 40,000-60,000 persons evacuated. “It was like a ghost town here, with everyone gone,” said Leon Crooks, of the wooded community of Pine Valley, about fifty miles east of San Diego. “The sheriff’s department patrolled very thoroughly, so there would be no looting.”
A cyclone-shaped cone of fire consumed one house, then split into two forks, one of which went through the wooded lot next to Crooks’ house, burning right along his fence edge, to within two feet of the house, without even scorching the paint. He pointed out several trees where one side had been burned, while the other remained green—depending on the whim of the changing winds.
In the rural community of Alpine, thirty miles east of San Diego, Clarence Engebretson had to evacuate twice. The first time, the fire passed about a quarter of a mile from his house. Of the second evacuation, his wife said: “The wind was so strong you had to brace yourself to walk. You wouldn’t believe how fast it came. It was the way fire burns along a dynamite fuse. We just collected the animals and kids, got in the cars and left.” On returning, they fully expected to find their home burned to the ground. But the wind had whipped the fire through the lot next to theirs, missing their house completely.
At La Cresta, about seven miles west of Alpine, Albert Davis said he woke up Sunday morning at about 5 o’clock. “We could see fire raging from Alpine, over there,” he said, gesturing across the valley, “all the way around as far as you can see.” Harbison Canyon lay between La Cresta and Alpine. It was to be the scene of particular destruction. “When we evacuated on Sunday,” his wife said, “we saw the wind blowing the fire over the edge of the canyon. Fireballs were blown over the bluff, and fell into the canyon below.” During the afternoon, about eighty homes in the canyon were either destroyed or damaged.
Then the wind swept the fire up the hill to La Cresta, an area of $30,000-$40,000 homes. “Right in here there were several houses,” Davis said. Parts of chimneys remained standing. In one yard there was the metal frame of the children’s swing. A reporter counted forty homes in La Cresta damaged in varying degrees.
The fire went “skip and miss” among the houses of rich and poor alike. Some homes would be burned, others inexplicably untouched.
“No one really thinks about a fire until it is right on top of him,” said Joseph Taschetti of El Cajon, just eighteen miles east of San Diego. He had gone to help a friend whose home was endangered. “The fire came in tremendous jumps,” he said. “It would leap perhaps one hundred feet, then burn and leap again. Cars were blowing up. Houses were being burned to the ground.” Bruce Jenson said: “There was no way anyone could outrun the fire, if he had been in front of it. You just had to be in a clearing, as we were.”
When the San Diego fire finally was contained at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, more than 185,000 acres had been burned, and at least 250 homes destroyed.
How Could Such Fires Occur?
How do such terrible fires occur, and why can they not be kept under control?
Southern California is a dry area. Grass, bushes and small trees hold water in the winter, but during the long summer months these small plants turn brown. They wait, dry and oily, for an accidental spark to cause them to burst into flames. The danger is so great that large signs along highways forbid smoking in hazardous areas.
Another factor is the wind. Occasionally hot, dry desert winds funnel through the canyons from a high-pressure area over the inland deserts to a low-pressure area over the Pacific Ocean. Locally called “Santa Ana” winds, they greatly multiply the danger from fires. The fiercest Santa Ana condition in recent history was responsible for this disaster. The winds were unseasonally early, unusually strong, and almost totally devoid of humidity. They turned sparks into disaster for anything downwind.
Under such conditions, terrifying “fire storms” develop. Firemen speak of temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot air rises so fast that wind is drawn in from every direction. Swirling flames leap seventy to one hundred feet into the air, sending sparks a mile high.
Fires get out of hand in inaccessible mountain regions, then breathe destruction on the edge of inhabited areas. Yet people continue to live in danger areas. The edge of the mountains offers better air, the luxury of a high location overlooking the surrounding area, or a sense of the “Old West” that can be enjoyed so near a great metropolitan area.
When such a fire gets out of hand, there just is not enough fire-fighting equipment to protect every home. Firemen try to pinch the fire in at its flanks, and save what they can.
Thousands of men battled for days. Owners saved their homes with garden hoses, buckets and shovels. Yards were watered down. Lawn sprinklers were left on rooftops. People used wet rugs to beat out flaming embers that blew near their buildings. Homeowners faced winds that sometimes were strong enough to rock a car, or knock a man off his feet. When they lost, they saw their homes devoured in a thirty-foot tower of flames.
Water and chemicals were dropped from the air. B-17 bombers, twenty-five years old, thundered over ridges at one hundred feet, dumping water. A special plane from Canada flew low over the nearby Pacific Ocean, sucking water up hose lines, then dropping 1,440 gallons of it on the fire every six minutes.
Firemen bulldozed fire lines, and set controllable backfires to destroy brush on which the main fire could have fed. “Containment” was the firemen’s first goal. It was to contain the fire within an area, rather than to extinguish all fires under way.
When the winds died down, exhausted firemen contained, then extinguished, all the southern California fires. The new problem was flooding. Such large watershed areas, denuded of their normal ground cover, could become a horror of mud slides and floods. It was feared that winter rains might cause as much damage as the fire itself!
Firemen fought valiantly. Public agencies were inundated with offers of help. More aid was volunteered than could possibly be used. Everyone talked about the assistance others offered. One man, whose own home had just burned, was on top of another endangered house, helping to save it.
Overseers of numerous congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses checked to see that everyone had a place to go (about 85 percent of the Pine Valley congregation had to evacuate). Other congregations offered facilities, and provided material aid where needed. Overseers often found that the neighborhood Bible study conductors had already seen to evacuation, and were out helping to water down houses.
Lloyd Harding, overseer of one of the Saugus congregations, said: “One of the things that impressed us most was that everywhere we went our brothers had already been there individually, caring for one another.” Thirty-five to forty members of his congregation had come down out of the threatened mesa, and were sheltered in one Witness’s home.
Glen Chart had been away. He had no idea his home was endangered. Returning, he saw that the hill behind it was afire, and assumed his house had burned. Instead, some twenty persons were there. “So many brothers’ cars were around our house,” he said, “that we had to park in someone else’s driveway.” Important things had been removed from the home, and his pets evacuated. People were watering down his house and yard, and, as he said, “everything was fine!”
Jeanne Fuchs’ home was completely burned in Malibu. She said: “Everyone was very kind. There have been a lot of kindnesses shown. People have really gone out of their way to help—all different kinds of people.”
One man asked: “Why can’t people be like this when there is no catastrophe?”
“God made man with this kind of compassion,” one of Jehovah’s witnesses later said. “Man is not a self-seeking product of evolution. He is not an animal, seeking only the ‘survival of the fittest.’ Instead, men are God’s creation, made in His image, and still manifesting traces of His divine attributes of wisdom, justice, love and power.” No matter what men have done to squelch those attributes, and how much modern society, based on competition and materialism, has done to deaden them, the fact remains that those desirable qualities are still there!
Atheists, agnostics, unbelievers, and people of all religious persuasions, still manifest them when the need is really great.
Jehovah’s witnesses are happy to know that soon such God-given compassion will be practiced by all men, when the Creator of mankind replaces earth’s present self-seeking system with a truly righteous one.