Fire fighting days gone by

As a history buff, I find myself looking over my shoulder at where we’ve been as a community as often as I look forward to where we’re going. That makes for a lot of tripping on my part. That was true this last weekend as my family and I watched our mountains burn. We watched in awe as the incredibly well-coordinated teams of ground crews, augmented by a fleet of perfectly choreographed copters and planes dropped water. My wife said to my youngest daughter, “You know, if this was happening a 100 years ago your father would be up in the mountains fighting this fire with a shovel and a wet gunny sack.” Well, maybe, was my thought.

We know that the wildfire cycle is a normal part of our natural world in this valley. The Indians and the Spanish knew that, and even actively participated in it, setting fires intentionally to increase the fertility of the land. They just knew when to get out of the way. Fires in the San Gabriel’s would rage unchecked for months until winter rains finally extinguished them. Occasionally the fires would come down the front of the range, and would creep across the Crescenta Valley, then over the Verdugos and into Burbank and Glendale. In the late 1880s and early 1900s these fires were frequent, happening in 1878, 1894, 1896-97, 1907, 1927 and 1933.

Firefighting in early La Crescenta was every resident’s duty, and all turned out when a fire threatened the valley. Recruiting beyond the numbers of local residents was a simple affair, without the complications of civil liberties. A roadblock was set up, and anyone passing by was pressed into service. Whether they were in work clothes or a tuxedo, they were handed a shovel, and sent to join the crews on the fire lines. If more men were needed, a wagon or truck was sent to Los Angeles to pick up the idlers that could be found in the Plaza. The valley became more organized by the early ’20s, when the Angeles Forest Protective Association was formed to fight fires, floods, and to replant trees after the fires to prevent the floods. These were crude operations, as teams of men and boys with shovels, buckets and wet gunny sacks would try to beat down or smother the walls of flames, or during the Santa Anas chase the fire from spot to spot as it leapfrogged through the sagebrush. I have visions of the Keystone Kops in cowboy hats. Local firefighting slowly passed into professional hands in the 30s and I think we’re all better off for it.

My favorite firefighting story took place in 1907, when the newly married Hall family carved out a little home and orchard at Pennsylvania and Foothill. Vernon Hall was a forest ranger and was often gone for days. His wife Eudoxie, a pretty little French girl barely out of her teens, was alone in the house when a fire broke out in what would later become Montrose. The wind-driven flames ran quickly north up Ocean View, jumped Foothill, then careened west, beginning a deliberate march through the sagebrush toward the Hall house. Eudoxie could see the fire coming and her first impulse must have been to run; but run to where? She steeled herself as the flames crossed Rosemont, then La Crescenta, and armed with the firefighting knowledge her husband had described, she set up a fire line. With a shovel she cut a quick firebreak on the northern edge of the orchard, about where Los Olivos is today, and set a line of water buckets and gunny sacks in the break. As the fire jumped Ramsdell, she lit a backfire, and running between the buckets kept the new fire moving east. The two lines of flame met and extinguished, just as a wagon load of men raced up to “rescue” her. Eudoxie was brave… and lucky.

I’m not romanticizing early CV residents’ efforts to fight fires. They did what they could, but they lost a lot of homes doing it, and probably a few lives too. We’re better off today, and safer, with our dedicated professional fire.

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley