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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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The Miracle of La Crescenta – Fireproof Ananda Ashrama

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Nov. 21, 1933 It was a quiet Tuesday evening at the Ananda Ashrama after a long hot summer. In the cool solitude of the 120-acre spiritual retreat at the top of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Ashrama sisters read, sewed or meditated. A mile away in Pickens Canyon a fire of mysterious origin flared. Fanned by increasing Santa Ana wind and fueled by brush that hadn’t burned in decades, the inferno swept across Briggs Terrace, burning a few homes. It then charged northwest across the face of the San Gabriel Mountains towards the Ashrama.

Firefighters streamed in from all parts of L.A. through the night, and the hundreds of young men housed in the three Civilian Conservation Corps in the area were mobilized. The fire burned through the Bissell Estate at the top of La Crescenta Avenue that night and began to lick at the edges of the Ashrama property. The hundreds of firefighters made a valiant stand and stopped the flames. At dawn the wind began to die and the fire retreated up the mountain. The jubilant sisters fed the exhausted firemen, thinking the danger had passed. The experienced firefighters knew better, knowing that when the Santa Ana winds returned at sunset the smoldering hillside would reignite. That day, they arrayed their hoses and pumpers around the compound.

As the firemen had predicted, sunset brought a great gust of wind which fanned the glowing embers alive. Almost immediately a 50 foot high wall of flame shot into the air from the canyons next to the Ashrama. The firefighters were overwhelmed by the sudden ferocity of the gusting firestorm. The wind had an insane intensity to it, sending flames over and around the Ashrama. The fire got away from the firefighters and they, and the sisters, found themselves surrounded – cut off from escape. The fire chief directed the sisters to shelter in the cloister. The chief entered the cloister doorway, the flames visible behind him, and told the women, “The fire is going to strike us, but we will do our best to save you.” The chief stepped back outside and, as the landscaping at the edges of the cloister began to burn, he handpicked 20 of his bravest men to save the women. He directed them to array themselves in a circle around the cloister, to lie flat on their stomachs while covering their faces, and spray their hoses on the structure. The bushes at their outstretched feet began to explode like match heads.

Inside the cloister the women knelt and began to pray. The darkened room lit up like daylight as showers of flaming embers poured down on the structure. The fire roared outside as smoke began to seep through the closed windows and the temperature rose. The women chanted in unison, and the fire-engulfed house seemed to vibrate with the intensity of their prayers. But quickly the fire passed over and the roaring subsided. The chief reentered the room and in a shaking voice announced, “The fire has gone over. It was the hand of God that saved you.”

Morning broke to an amazing scene. The structures of the Ashrama were clustered together untouched by fire while everything around was burned – an island in a sea of white ash. The bushes at the base of the temple walls were consumed, but of the building only the edges of the eaves showed scorch marks. The flames had touched the foundations of the many cabins with their shake roofs, but nothing on them had ignited. The community house was surrounded by highly combustible eucalyptus trees, but the trees and the house were untouched. The brush burned right next to the cow barn filled with dry hay, which should have exploded but didn’t. The wooden steps to a house burned halfway up and then miraculously stopped.

Headlines the next day proclaimed that the Ashrama and the firefighters were trapped and probably dead, but in reality, all were unhurt. One smoky firefighter proclaimed: “I am not a religious man, but I am convinced those prayers saved us all.”

It was perhaps a miracle.

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1 Response for “Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler”

  1. Sean and Teryl Riley says:

    Hi there Mike. Nice writing.

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