The Verdugo/San Rafael Fires of 1964 – Part 1
The fires that swept the Verdugo Mountains and San Rafael Hills in March 1964 were some of the worst in our history. The two separate fires were high-wind fires, blown forward at lightning speed, unstoppable as they raged. The fires moved so fast that the fire department couldn’t cover them quickly enough, and homeowners and volunteers had to augment the firefighters’ ranks. The conflagration was brief, just over one day, but it charred thousands of acres and burned scores of homes.
It started with the wind. It had been an unusually windy winter and spring, with several rounds of Santa Anas drying the brush in the mountains. The series of Santa Ana winds ended in a crescendo on Sunday night. As the sun went down, the winds ramped up in intensity. By the early morning hours of Monday, the winds were clocking at 100 miles per hour. In the pre-dawn darkness, windows were blowing out, and signs and trees were toppling. At Hauter Ford (where Trader Joe’s is today) three huge floor-to-ceiling showroom windows exploded inward, and the roof was torn off its parts building. In Montrose, business signs on rooftops and blade signs hanging over the sidewalk were torn off and twisted. A huge metal sign on the roof of Dorsey’s Toys was ripped off and crashed onto the sidewalk below. La Cañada’s Flintridge House, a high-end furniture store, had its big display windows blown in and the fancy chairs and tables in the showroom were tossed about like dry leaves. In residential neighborhoods all over the foothills, walls were being blown over, roofs were coming off, and trees were being ripped out.
What seems to have been a small tornado touched down in the neighborhood around Pali and La Reina, between Tujunga Canyon Road and Lowell Avenue, just below Foothill Blvd. The morning light revealed a 75-foot wide swath of destruction along six homes there. In one home, the roof was ripped off, the attached garage flattened, and a 2×2 length of wood had been driven endwise through the solid wood front door.
At 4:20 a.m., as if to add confusion to the chaos, the power went out over much of the foothills. Darkness descended and traffic lights went out as the wind continued to scream. Power lines had blown down all across the valley, either snapped by the wind or knocked down by falling trees. The live power lines on the ground started dozens of fires in the predawn darkness, and the howling winds began spreading and merging the small fires. It wasn’t until dawn that residents hiding inside their homes from the winds realized that they were in peril.
It was 5:47 a.m. when the first call came to the fire department from Whiting Woods. Flames began to lick at homes on the lower portion of Whiting Woods as firefighters arrived. They watched helplessly as sheets of flames tore up the hillsides of the Verdugos, surfing the gusts of wind, leaping across canyons. The wind-driven fire was leapfrogging as flaming branches were blown ahead of the flames to start fresh new fires in front of the advancing walls of fire.
On the San Rafael side the fire was unnoticed by many at first, until they saw the odd sight of wildlife – deer, rabbits and racoons running down Chevy Chase Canyon Drive – or until they noticed the smell of smoke. A news reporter who lived near the bottom of the canyon saw smoke coming in his bedroom window. He jumped in his car to take a quick look up the canyon and saw that the entire canyon would soon be threatened. Fire trucks were slowed in their progress up the canyon by trees across the road, and live power lines on the street. Homeowners in the canyon, having thought they were going to work on that Monday morning, were up on their roofs instead, wearing suits and ties as they trickled water from hoses onto their threatened homes.
Next week, we’ll hear how the fire spread quickly from Chevy Chase Canyon and Whiting Woods.