Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

The Verdugo/San Rafael Fires of 1964 – Part 2


Last week we covered the beginnings of this disastrous fire in March 1964. The double fire, burning on both the Verdugo Mountains and the San Rafael Hills simultaneously, was blown across the landscape by winds gusting near 100 miles per hour. It charred thousands of acres and destroyed many homes.

On the Verdugos, the fire that had started in the morning in the Whiting Woods area had in just 20 minutes crested the Verdugos, and was roaring downhill toward Glendale. At 10:15 a.m., the fire reached the first homes above Kenneth Road. Wind gusts of 70 and 80 miles per hour were blowing flaming embers off the top of the fire and the entire Glendale neighborhood was blanketed in hot ash and burning leaves. The roads to the area were clogged with those fleeing the flames and idiot sightseers wanting to get a closer look. Fire trucks were having a hard time getting there. Cars of those wishing to watch houses burn completely blocked Kenneth Road.

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

At the intersection of Ridgeway and Meadows, about two blocks above Kenneth, the roof of a big mansion (valued at $50,000!) ignited from flaming embers blown from the hillside hundreds of yards away. The owners watched helplessly from across the street as the fire, fanned by the wind, quickly engulfed the entire roof, eating its way through the house, room-to-room. The fire department finally got through the traffic and the firemen approached the front door with axes. Non-sensibly the panicked owner sprinted ahead of them and opened the door with his housekeys.

The wind now was whipping back and forth, changing direction, creating real danger for the firefighters. Two WWII-era bombers converted for the new field of aerial firefighting tried to drop fire retardant, but were forced back when shifting winds damaged their bomb bay doors. A helicopter attempting to direct firefighters crash-landed on the Chevy Chase Golf Course. A fire truck in Whiting Woods experienced a gust that lifted two wheels off the ground.

At mid-day the fire was headed west toward Burbank, but the wind shifted and sent it back toward its origin point in Whiting Woods. The shifted wind was now sending the fire east, and at 2 p.m. it crested the ridge and headed down into Royal Canyon, across from Glendale College. Sightseers were still hampering the efforts to get firefighters up Royal Boulevard, but police were beginning to get a handle on the traffic.

Fire units were streaming in now from all over LA. Two exotic fire-fighting trucks showed up at the top of Royal, both with huge aircraft engines mounted on their beds. These powerful pumpers were capable of shooting streams of water 500 feet across canyons or up hillsides. But when they fired up the big pumps, the powerful stream was blown to a mist by the gusting wind. A reporter watching the spectacle looked down and saw a wild rabbit sheltering on the ground between his feet, its fear of man overmatched by its fear of the fire. In the next canyon north, residents on San Luis Rey Drive wanting to evacuate were trapped by several downed trees and street light poles across the road. This fire was truly terrifying!

On the CV side of the Verdugos, evacuated residents were sheltering in cars loaded with valuables. A reporter was quizzing fleeing residents about what they had decided to take with them as they ran out the door. One teenage girl had loaded up all her pets, a rabbit, duck, parakeet and two dogs, and all her Beatles records, while her sister took only her term paper and a hair dryer. An 18-year-old high school senior gabbed his coin and stamp collection. One man took only his wife who was in a wheelchair with a broken leg. A young boy had grabbed his baseball mitt, while his mother had taken “just the kids. I can’t replace them.”

Next week, we’ll hear about the continuing drama on the Chevy Chase Canyon fire, and how the students of Glendale College made a stand against the fire.