By Paul Rippens
The horrendous fires of 2007 in Southern
California recall the tragedy of 1933 in Los Angeles which claimed the lives
of some 30 fire fighters. To this day it remains the deadliest fire in the
city’s history. Paul Rippens is editor of the newsletter of the Associated
Historical Societies of Los Angeles County. This story is reprinted from the
Winter 2007 issue of the AHSLAC newsletter.
Excerpts for this story were taken from Griffith Park — A Centennial
History by Mike Eberts. This book, published in 1996, is the most
comprehensive history of Griffith Park and is well worth reading. Copies are
available through the Historical Society of Southern California and on
The summer of 1933 was
abnormally cool. But by early fall, hot dry winds began to blow into Los
Angeles from the desert. Already parched from months without rain, the
chaparral in Griffith Park became dry as tinder.
Griffith Park was alive
with activity. Although the great Depression was at its depth, literally
thousands of men were maintaining bridle trails and roads, clearing up scrub
brush and weeds and building a new road through the undeveloped upper park.
These men were in Griffith Park because of an extraordinary federal-county
partnership designed to help the nation muddle through its economic
Tuesday, October 3 was a
day without fog and the early sun combined with a dry wind from the desert.
By noon, the Los Angeles Civic Center reported a temperature of 100 degrees.
Over 3700 men had reported to work in Griffith Park that day to work on the
many projects underway. Soon many would be assisting to contain a fire in
the park, but some would not go home that night, for they would lose their
lives in the fire.
At 2:10 p.m., Griffith
Park Golf Professional Bobby Ross said he and several companions spotted
smoke arising from a nearby hill as they stood at the first tee. The smoke
was about 150 yards from the golf clubhouse and only 80 feet or so from a
crew working just above what was then the main highway through the park. The
fire continued to spread despite the efforts of the men to control the
spread of the flames.
By now, the Los Angeles
City Fire Department had arrived. Fire Chief Ralph Scott said his men found
an estimated 3000 workers in a 40-acre fire area that included Mineral Wells
Canyon. Around 3 p.m., the wind — which had been blowing gently and steadily
down the canyons from the northwest — shifted. The fire advanced on the
workers quickly, taking them by surprise.
Men scrambled madly up
the canyon wall, trying to outrun the advancing flames. Workers watching
from the new road above heard a particularly grisly transcript of the
proceedings. “You could tell the progress of the fire by the screams,” one
man said. “The flames would catch a man and his screams would reach an awful
pitch. Then there would be an awful silence — then you would hear another
scream. It was all over inside of seven minutes.”
It was hard to determine
how many lost their lives that day. At first the count was thought to be as
high as 70 to 80. Three weeks after the fire, the Grand Jury was still
trying to find out if all the men working in the park on October 3 were
accounted for. More than a month after the fire, the District Attorney’s
Office set the official death toll at 20–27 dead at the scene and two dead
in hospitals afterward. It was the deadliest fire in the city’s history, and
it still is today.