Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on September 1, 2011.

Actress Kim Novak uses a garden hose to wet down the roof of her home in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles on November 6, 1961, as a raging brush fire swept within 100 yards of the mansion. The house was saved, at least temporarily, but the homes of many other Hollywood celebrities were destroyed. (Photo: AP/Wide World/Ellis R. Bosworth)

'A Tragedy Trimmed in Mink'
Fifty years later: The Brentwood-Bel Air Fire of 1961

NFPA Journal®, October 2011 

Hollywood received a wake-up call in November, 1961, when a wildfire burned 16,090 acres (6,511 hectares), destroyed more than 484 homes, and caused an estimated $50 million in damage in the tony Brentwood and Bel Air sections of Los Angeles. Among the homes destroyed were those of Zsa Zsa Gabor and Burt Lancaster, according to the November 17 issue of Life magazine. Other celebs, including Kim Novak, Maureen O’Hara, Fred MacMurray, and Richard Nixon, took to their wood-shake roofs and hosed them down, saving them from windblown embers. Life dubbed the event "A Tragedy Trimmed in Mink."

What became known as the Brentwood-Bel Air Fire began on November 6 in a pile of rubbish in Sherman Oaks and was spread by Santa Ana winds gusting up to 60 mph (96.5 kph). It advanced with "nasty capriciousness," according to Life, "sometimes spilling into ravines, sometimes leaping from ridge to ridge."

As fire approached the neighborhoods, more than 300 police officers were called upon to evacuate 3,500 residents, who, "in Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces … trundled down the twisting avenues, servants in tow, all carrying a wild array of hastily grabbed properties," according to the reportage in Life. More than 2,500 firefighters fought the blaze for 12 hours, sometimes using water pumped from swimming pools, before they brought it under control. At least 200 firefighters were hurt, many by tar dripping from burning roofs, but they managed to save 78 percent of the area’s homes. No one was killed.

The fire was the fifth-costliest in the nation’s history up to that time. It also brought renewed scrutiny to the use of untreated wood-shake and wood-shingled roofs on homes located in the fire-prone zone we now call the wildland-urban interface.

— Kathleen Robinson