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1933 Griffith Park brush fire kills 29

1933 Griffith Park brush fire kills 29

Oct. 3, 1933: Injured from Griffith Park brush fire are helped at first aid station. Twenty-nine people died in the fire.

In 1933, thousands of Depression-era workers were widening roads and working other projects in Griffith Park. When a small brush fire broke out the workers, untrained in firefighting, were sent to put out the fire. Then the wind changed and disaster struck.

This photo above, and map were published in the Oct. 4, 1933, Los Angeles Times.

Map showing location of Oct. 3, 1933, brush fire in Griffith Park that killed 29 people. Credit: Charles H. Owens/Los Angeles Times.

After a Feb. 15, 2007, ceremony in Griffith Park honoring the dead, staff writer Bob Pool reported:

The Griffith Park ridge top looked a lot better Thursday than it did the first time John Loa was there.

Happy schoolchildren were laughing this time in the cool morning air. A light breeze swept away the haze to make the view of Glendale’s office buildings sparklingly clear.

That’s not the way it was Oct. 3, 1933, when Loa and 1,500 other Depression-era workers were marched to the ridge top so they could fight a small brush fire that was burning in the canyon beneath the hill.

The men had been summoned from Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration projects building roads and clearing bridle trails in the park. The federal public works effort, administered by Los Angeles County, was providing employment for 3,700 men left jobless by the collapsed national economy.

In midafternoon on that smoggy, 100-degree day, workers were ordered to take their shovels to the fire and toss dirt on the flames. That’s what the first arrivals were doing when a gust of wind sent the fire roaring up the side of the ridge toward the workers.

Hundreds scrambled to safety, and despite initial reports that 33 were killed, the final death toll was 29.

Loa returned to the ridge Thursday to help students plant the last of a row of 29 memorial pine trees honoring the victims of Los Angeles’ deadliest wildfire.

Now 96, he posed for a picture wearing a modern-day helmet as young firefighters from Station 35 crowded around him.

Glancing down the ridge slope next to them, their captain, Robert Vowels, scanned the canyon bottom knowingly.

“This is the kind of place we always tell you, ‘Don’t go there,’ ” Vowels reminded them.

That wasn’t the advice given to the road builders who climbed down the ridge 73 years ago. Their crew foreman told them to take a narrow path leading into the box canyon where a three-acre fire was slowly burning.

” ‘Smack it out with your shovels and cut a fire break!’ was the order ringing in the ears of the more than 1,500 men, all of them unskilled at brush fire fighting, as they entered the peaceful canyon which was soon to become a hissing, crackling death scene for some of their number,” The Times said the next day.

” ‘It was just a lark to us,’ groaned one of the survivors later. ‘It didn’t look dangerous then. We laughed about it and started down, to bat the fire out in a hurry.’ “

When the wind caused a flare-up, a fire warden ordered the men out. As they started back along the narrow trail, they ran into hundreds of others still coming down from the top. There was panic when flames began shooting up the hill.

Those who stumbled on the trail were trampled by those behind them. Those who left the pathway and tried frantically to crawl through thick brush to the top were trapped in dense chaparral. …

For more, check out Bob Pool’s full 2007 story Survivor honors the dead in 1933 wildfire.

This previous From the Archives post, Unemployed hired to widen Griffith Park roads in 1933, is related.

Also, check out this story on the Los Angeles Fire Department’s website: Griffith Park Fire.

Feb. 15, 2007: John Loa, right, and Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge plant a pine tree in honor of the 29 men killed in the Oct. 3, 1933, brush fire in Griffith Park.  Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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