Biggest maybe, but not close to the worst LA brush fire

latuna-fire-lacty.jpgLA County Fire Dept.

[Sept. 6 Update: The largest Los Angeles fire by acreage in the city was actually in 1938, LAFD records confirm. Check it out. ]

It's been a hairy weekend for people in the communities near La Tuna Canyon and along the Verdugo Mountains — threatening flames, thick smoke, mandatory evacuations, air drops day and night, and way hot temperatures. As of Sunday night, the evacuations have all been lifted and the 210 freeway reopened for the first time all weekend. What they are calling the LaTuna Fire of 2017 is only 30 percent contained, so the numbers could rise, but the stats this far are three homes burned in the city of Los Angeles and a revised Sunday night estimate of 7,003 acres of brush scorched. Four firefighters have suffered non-life threatening injuries. More than 1,000 firefighters have been engaged.

The weekend fire's threat was aimed at the Shadow Hills, Sunland and Tujunga communities of Los Angeles, so there also were lots of horses, other animals and older residents who had to be relocated. Tense times for a lot of people there and in the cities of Burbank and Glendale, which also had ordered some limited evacuations.

You'd think from the headlines, though, that Los Angeles was under a fire siege — in part because of the great media pics and social media — and because on Saturday morning Mayor Eric Garcetti told the world that this was the biggest wildfire in city of Los Angeles history. At the time, the number was around 5,000 acres — well behind the life-changing Bel Air fire in 1961 that burned 6,090 acres and destroyed 484 homes.

On Sunday night, the fire command provisionally bumped La Tuna's acreage up to to over 7,000 acres. So if that holds, the mayor will now be right on the acreage within the city limits criteria. Even so, this weekend's conflagration is small in the recent annals of Los Angeles area fires. And it's not even the worst La Tuna Canyon fire on record.

The La Tuna Canyon fire that is in the history books — and that probably informed the massive official response when flames broke out on Friday — occurred in November 1955. It started in a backyard on La Tuna Canyon Road on a Sunday and spread quickly, burning for five days over at least 4,500 acres. Few houses were lost. This was before water-dropping helicopters and planes, so the fight was on the ground, ridge by ridge in the brush. Almost every employee of the Los Angeles Fire Department was engaged in the fire in some way,

The toll, however, included a Los Angeles firefighter. Auto Fireman James L. Catlow, of Engine Company 39, died in a fire storm that swept over Green Verdugo fire road. About 100 other firefighters were treated at a hospital. Catlow was awarded the department's Medal of Valor.

"This was a big fire--it was a terrible fire--it was an educational fire," reads an account at the LAFD history website. "Every fire department employee was involved in some way whether actually on the fire lines, or in the background planning and coordinating the many phases of such a large scale operation.... This was a fire experience that will be talked about for a long, long time."

The deadliest brush fire in the city broke out on Oct. 3, 1933, in the Mineral Wells Canyon area of Griffith Park, near the old Los Angeles Zoo This was during the Great Depression, and a work crew of men from the county welfare relief rolls were being used to clear brush. They were re-directed to fight a small fire and got caught in the flames — 29 of the men died and more than 150 others were hurt. "The county morgue wasn't big enough to handle all the remains, let alone the victims' grieving families and the inquisitive press," historian Mike Eberts wrote. The terrible toll came in a fire that only burned 46 acres before being put out.

The Bel Air Fire in November 1961 is the disaster that usually gets the most attention, in part because it was the first in Los Angeles to unfold on TV news and because the fire devastated some of the most expensive neighborhoods in Los Angeles. "The most disastrous brush fire in the history of Southern California," the official LAFD report said at the time. It's due to this fire that you don't see a lot of shingle roofs (or older houses) along Mulholland Drive, and if you live in the hills you get those official warnings every spring from the fire department to clear the brush around your home.

Here's an LAFD film made in the aftermath of Bel Air.

In November 2008, the Sayre Fire in the Sylmar section of the city destroyed 480 mobile homes and nine other homes as it swept across 11,262 acres.

There also have been many wildfires that burned mostly outside the Los Angeles city limits that were far bigger than this weekend's La Tuna fire. Many people remember the Station Fire that burned across the San Gabriel Mountains for more than a week in 2009, claiming 161,189 acres and killing two firefighters. Another fire event that disaster officials still study is a 1970 event that began as a brush fire in the Santa Clarita area, burned to the west end of the San Fernando Valley, and merged with a fire that went all the way to the ocean in Malibu. In all 157,058 acres were burned and more than 350 homes destroyed, and the experience spurred the adoption of new tactics for fighting fires — including the unified command structure that kicks in all the big fires these days.

Last year's Sand Fire in the San Gabriels and Angeles National Forest burned more than 35,000 acres,

As for the current fire, it is a major event — both the mayor and the governor have declared states of emergency — just not that epic by Los Angeles standards. It's actually one of the smaller, least destructive fires in California this summer, including a couple that have threatened Yosemite National Park and, just this weekend, a grove of giant Sequoia trees.

Even so, the mayor's quip that this was the largest fire in LA history enabled screaming headlines all over the place. The LA Times used the claim to attract eyeballs to its coverage, local TV did the same, and sites like BuzzFeed joined in breathlessly: Los Angeles Is Battling The Biggest Wildfire In Its History And The Photos Are Unreal.

By the end of the weekend Garcetti began to qualify the claim, but try putting that genie back in the bottle.

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