Mill Fire of 1975 – The Beginning
One of the most memorable fires in the Crescenta Valley, second only to the Station Fire of 2009, was the Mill Fire that took place Nov. 23-24, 1975. It was Santa Ana wind-driven, and quickly consumed 47,000 acres. It destroyed some 11 homes, nine here in the Crescenta Valley, and seriously damaged many more. Although it was one of the more dramatic fires we’ve had, with high winds blowing sheets of flame over still-occupied neighborhoods, amazingly no lives were lost. Many of us reading this remember the darkness that descended over the Crescenta Valley on the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 23. The Santa Ana winds blew smoke down on the valley so thick that streetlights on Foothill Boulevard came on in the afternoon. They came on but cast no light; they were just orange pinpricks in the darkness.
The Mill Fire was named for Mill Creek, near where it started in the Angeles National Forest, but it is sometimes called the Big Tujunga Canyon Fire where the majority of the burned acreage was. The fire first popped up in some dry grass near Monte Cristo Campground. It was first reported at 1:30 in the afternoon on Saturday, Nov. 22. A column of black smoke was spotted, forest service fire crews responded immediately and within a few hours the relatively minor brushfire had been contained at just a mere 15 acres.
But what happened next was the perfect storm for a major brushfire. As the sun set on the smoldering fire site, the humidity suddenly began to drop and wind gusts began to blow through the canyon. The gusts turned into blasts, which blew on and ignited embers in the burned over areas. The mop-up fire crew that had been left behind by the larger fire crew watched helplessly as those hot embers were picked up and blown above into unburned brush on the hills. The crews tried to get up the steep slopes, but it was too late. The renewed wildfire raced away from them in two directions. One front went east and raced up the hillsides toward Angeles Crest Highway. The other front went south down-canyon and quickly gained Big Tujunga Canyon. Gusting winds and darkness kept aircrews grounded, and ground crews tried to stay ahead of the advancing flames through the night.
By Sunday at noon, the fire being blown down Big Tujunga Canyon was threatening the first homes. The residents of La Paloma and Vogel Flats high up in the canyon got the word to evacuate and to head down-canyon for Tujunga. They loaded up their horses into trailers, piled possessions into cars, and even used boats on trailers to save household treasures.
That afternoon many of them paused in their retreat on Big Tujunga Canyon Road overlooking Vogel Flats where a reporter caught up with them. They watched as fire crews on the ground among their homes battled valiantly. One man with a horse trailer laughed about how his horse was normally impossible to get into the trailer but this time the nervous horse walked right in. Another woman who was a professional photographer regretted the expensive cameras she left behind as she gamely snapped photos with her daughter’s Kodak Instamatic. Another resident of Vogel Flats joined the crowd, but came from the wrong direction, from Tujunga. He said he had foolishly left to go shopping that morning and now was left with nothing but his car and the clothes he was wearing.
As smoke from the fire obscured the view of the band of refugees, the sound of chainsaws drifted up to them. The fire crews were cutting down any trees that were too close to the houses they were battling to save. Ultimately the firefighters saved all the homes in La Paloma and Vogel Flats, although 43 were charred and damaged, and lots of outbuildings and cars burned. The fire was still advancing down-canyon. At 3:30 p.m. a command center was set up at the detention camp, but by 6 p.m. the command center was abandoned and re-established in Hansen Dam.
Next week, the fire touches La Crescenta.