By Ed Meckle, retired LAPD
With fires burning what seems to most of California, my thoughts turned to the Bel- Aire fire of 1961.
I was working metro the “go anywhere, do anything” division when the phone woke me in the very early hours of Monday, November 6, 1961.
“Class a uniform, here (at the office), ASAP.”
I thought it was a joke as I was scheduled to take my sergeants oral exam that morning.
“No joke. Everything is on hold. Get in here.”
An hour later about fifty of us aboard two police buses headed west into the darkness. All we knew was there was a major fire in Bel-Aire. Later, someone exclaimed, “My god, look at that.”
The entire horizon for 180 degrees was on fire and we were headed directly into it. We were to assist with evacuations, keep sightseers out and prevent looting.
Bel-Aire? What did I know of Bel-Aire?
It turned out to be another world. A very toney piece of real estate. Hilly, sprawling and in some areas almost pristine. It ultimately became known as the Bel Aire-Brentwood Fire.
Isolated canyons, mountain-top mansions of the rich and famous. To the fire, everyone was equal—everything burned.
The locals welcomed us with open arms as saviors. We were used to working in hostile areas and it was a shock to find the love. Actual cheers and applause.
I don’t think bottled water had been “invented” yet but we had more food and beverages than we could handle.
The beautiful screen actress Maureen O’Hara opened the side door to her kitchen/pantry 24/7 with all manner of food and desserts.
Life magazine tagged it, “tragedy trimmed in mink.” And yes, we had Santa Ana winds and the favorite target of the flames “shingle roofs.”
We worked 12-hour shifts, slept in the West LA jail or on cots.
The mountains above Bel-Aire were then wild and largely uninhabited with many secondary roads into the area, “the back way.”
On one occasion, I was sent to relieve Officer Jim Horkan at some remote mountain-top outpost. On arrival, I found a 12 or 14-year-old boy in the intersection ready to direct traffic if it should appear. I asked him where the officer was, he pointed to a large tree nearby. I swear this is true. Jim was seated in an overstuffed chair and a uniformed butler was serving him tea. Yes, a butler, honest.
Sometime later, I flagged one of the few cars passing and discovered former Vice President Richard M. Nixon as passenger. He lived in the area. One year later almost to the day, he lost the election to become governor of California.
On day three with the fire contained, I remember driving along a mountain top range of burned out homes. One after another after another, the world was grey and deathly silent. Not even the sight or sound of a bird. Otherworldly.
484 homes lost, 16,000 acres burned. Zero fatalities.
A truly unforgettable experience.