Wildfire in the Verdugos – 1977

While we shiver in the (relative) cold of our California winter, we can warm up with the memory of a historic summer wildfire. July 1977 was one of those awful times when it seemed like the whole world was aflame. Drought conditions combined with record high temperatures and low humidity to spark fires across the southland. Corona, Riverside, San Diego, Ventura and Hemet all had wildfires, the worst being in Santa Barbara where 234 homes were destroyed.

The mountains around Los Angeles were tinderboxes just waiting to burst into flames. Fire officials deemed the fire danger in the mountains to be “as dangerous as it’s possible to be.” All campgrounds and picnic areas were closed. Officers were placed at the entrances to the national forest where they stopped and warned motorists and recorded their license plates.

Here in the Crescenta Valley, as the mid-day temps pushed 100 degrees, a fire started near the intersection of La Tuna Canyon and the 210 Freeway. The fire department responded with all hands: 56 units with nearly 250 firefighters, six helicopters, two bulldozers and four camp crews.

The fire initially pushed east toward Lowell Avenue. At the racquetball club under construction (now the YMCA), construction crews working there used hoses to spray down construction equipment as the flames approached. Fire crews managed to establish a line and divert the flames, managing to protect the building under construction. Helicopter water drops also helped to halt the flames in their eastward push.

At 2 p.m., the winds reversed and the fire began to move westward back toward firefighters. Helicopters that had been dropping crews on ridges behind the lines had to come back and pick them up. One firefighter was forced to abandon his vehicle in the face of advancing flames and he received burns on his hands in his retreat. One of the bulldozers had to be abandoned to the flames when its engine died.

Members of a camp crew were trapped. Two cousins, Willie and Danny Sanchez, were cut off and had to be rescued: “We were up there and all of a sudden it came over the hill. We had to be picked up by a truck. The flames were all around us, like an oven. We were toasted. All five of us rode back in the cab section of the truck.”

The reversed wind was steady at 20 mph, but flames produced blasts of 50 mph.

“The brush is acting like a carpet of gasoline,” reported one fireman. A new danger cropped up when the tall flames hit the high power lines running across the burn area. Four transmission lines bearing 220,000 volts of electricity exploded in a blinding flash of light.

During the air war on the flames, one of the six helicopters lost power right after making a water drop. The Bell 205 aircraft made a forced landing, fortunately in an unburned area. The pilot managed to exit the crashed copter and ran about 40 feet away from the wreckage before collapsing. He was rushed to Verdugo Hills Hospital where he was treated for broken vertebrae and internal injuries. The helicopter was a total loss.

By late afternoon the fire had been pushed into a pocket formed by the freeway on the north and firebreaks on the east side and west side. Still the fire raged as the sun went down. The flames shot hundreds of feet into the sky, providing a nighttime spectacle to local residents. The plume of smoke spiraled to 5000 feet and was visible all over Los Angeles.

Fire crews got a handle on the flames during the night. Amazingly no structures were damaged or destroyed. The next day 100 firefighters remained on the scene to mop up any remaining flames as fire danger remained high.

Thanks to the hard and dangerous work of the firefighters, the destruction had been limited to just 500 acres on the western slopes of the CV side of the Verdugos.

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