Sunday, May 24

Throwback Thursday: The Bel Air fire of 1961

Throwback Thursdays are our chance to reflect on past events on or near campus and relate them to the present day. Each week, we showcase and analyze an old article from the Daily Bruin archives in an effort to chronicle the campus’ history.

Fires ravaged Northern California and Orange County earlier this year, destroying thousands of buildings. But over 50 years ago, Bruins nearly experienced a similar incident right here at UCLA.

In early November 1961, the Daily Bruin reported fires raging through the canyons near the Santa Monica Mountains, just a couple of miles away from the university. Much like how things went down in 2017, a Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency – only then, it was Edmund Brown, current Gov. Jerry Brown’s father.

The Bruin reported Nov. 6, 1961 that the fires had destroyed over 200 homes. The university cancelled classes after 2 p.m. and the Dickson Art Center was displaying a Pablo Picasso exhibit, which had to be temporarily shut down.

Then-Chancellor Franklin Murphy said he expected classes to continue as normal Nov. 6. However, classes and tests were eventually canceled due to the lack of suitable ways to get to a university that was, at the time, a commuter campus.

The Bruin reported that while not attending classes, students stopped to watch the fires from the safety of campus, especially from the vantage point at the top of Janss Steps. Dorm residents reported seeing the flames from their windows and smelling the smoke in the air – quite the way to start off a week.

The closest the fire got to campus was within one mile, according to reports The Bruin received Nov. 5, but the Associated Press reported later that day that UCLA was not considered to be at risk from the fires.

The UCLA Medical Center treated 30 firefighters for nonserious injuries they received while battling the fire. Since the fire struck Bel Air, many celebrities, such as actor Burt Lancaster and comedian Red Skelton, lost their homes.

The fire impacted only a few Bruins initially, with less than 10 UCLA students and staff losing their homes on the first day of the fires. But then things worsened on Tuesday. The Bruin’s Nov. 7 paper reported that scores of UCLA staff and students had lost their homes to the “worst fires in Los Angeles history.” The Bel Air fires still remain the worst fires in LA history by number of houses destroyed.

Among the UCLA affiliates who had lost their houses were Willard Libby, a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, and Jerry Norman, a then-assistant basketball coach who lost his house in Brentwood. The Bruin reported that Harry E. Morris, the publications manager for Associated Students UCLA, rushed home Nov. 5 and stayed up all night, fighting to protect his home from the flames, with his friends coming to his aid on the following morning.

The Bruin also reported it called campus departments and learned that nearly each one had at least one staff member who had lost their home.

While the fire never hit UCLA directly and posed no immediate danger, some students were afraid the fire would head their way and evacuated from Dykstra and Sproul Halls.

Fortunately, there were no fatalities from the Bel Air fire, but the flames covered nearly 16,000 acres and destroyed nearly 500 homes. Over half a century later, the areas hit by the fire have easily recovered, with rich people’s homes once again dotting the valleys. UCLA and surrounding neighborhoods, now in the middle of a sprawling urban area, haven’t been at risk of facing a wildfire in recent years. And instead of fearing a wildfire raging just miles away, students now only live in fear of having to evacuate from fire drills.

Opinion staff columnist

Shetty is a senior staffer in the Opinion section and a staff representative on the Daily Bruin Editorial Board. He was an assistant Opinion editor in the 2017-2018 school year and previously contributed as an opinion columnist. He writes about topics including the undergraduate student government and the UCLA administration.


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