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In 1961, the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire burned more than 500 structures

Looking back on the most destructive fire in Los Angeles history

House on fire
The fire burned through more than 6,000 acres, claiming hundreds of valuable homes.
Photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Multiple fires sweeping through Los Angeles are creating nightmarish scenes that, for many longtime residents, may bring back memories of the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire of 1961—arguably the most destructive in the city’s long history.

The blaze started the morning of November 6, and at at 8:15 a.m., a construction crew reported that brush was burning above Stone Canyon, just off Mulholland Drive. As former Los Angeles firefighter Frank Borden recalled in 2015, a “dark billowing cloud of smoke” soon began to appear above the canyon, making it clear before many fire crews were even dispatched to the scene that this would be “the ‘big one.’”

Just 11 minutes after the fire was reported, officials issued a request for air tankers. By 8:30, a “major emergency” was declared.

The speed with which firefighters responded wasn’t enough to stem the rapid spread of flames, fanned by 25 to 50 mile-per-hour Santa Ana winds and accelerated by a humidity level of just 3 percent in parts of the city.

House with pool on fire

The fire spread throughout the morning and afternoon before the winds died down around 3 p.m., and firefighters were able to begin stemming its growth. Complicating matters, however, was the outbreak of a second fire near Topanga Canyon, now known as the Santa Ynez Fire.

Though it destroyed little property, the Santa Ynez Fire eventually burned 8,560 acres and forced firefighters across the county to divide up resources rather than focusing entirely on either blaze.

Fireplace in fire-wrecked home

The Bel Air-Brentwood Fire, meanwhile, burned through more than 6,000 acres and claimed more than 500 structures on some of the nation’s most valuable real estate.

Among the casualties: the residences of stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Burt Lancaster.

As the Los Angeles Times reported years later, other celebrities fought to save their homes. Maureen O’Hara and Fred MacMurray stubbornly refused to evacuate and managed to mitigate the damage to their properties.

Nixon wets the wood-shingled roof his rental house on North Bundy Drive during Brentwood-Bel Air fire of 1961.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Richard Nixon, then renting a house on North Bundy Drive, took to the roof with a garden hose, saving the home (along with a draft of his memoir, Six Crises).

Though not the most deadly fire in Los Angeles history—that would be the Griffith Park Fire of 1933, which claimed the lives of 29 trail workers who attempted to fight the flames—the Bel Air-Brentwood Fire did the most damage to the city’s built environment (and no doubt led to quite a few valuable insurance claims).