The 1978 Blaze Destroyed 25 Homes and St. Matthew’s Church

The 1978 Fire raged in the Santa Monica Mountains above Palisades High School.

On the afternoon of October 23, 1978, a blaze started near the intersection of Sepulveda and Mulholland. Whipped by winds that gusted up to 60 miles an hour, it spread west, through Kenter, Mandeville, Sullivan, Rustic, Temescal and Santa Ynez Canyons. Flames reached 50 to 100 feet, and many people in its path were evacuated. The fire reached the Pacific Coast Highway in about two hours. Sunset Boulevard became congested with traffic, making it more difficult for emergency vehicles.

At the Boy Scout camp, in upper Rustic Canyon, ranger Don Welch and wife Victoria, stayed to fight the fire. They saw their home go up in flames and it was only when they saw their own car explode in flames, did they realize they were trapped.

They submerged themselves in the algae-covered waters of the swimming pool and spent the next two hours breathing through baseball caps on their faces and fending off panic-stricken rats. When they felt the worst had passed, they drove a truck on the narrow road, though tunnels of fire, with the heat so intense that the truck tires exploded.

The fire destroyed 30 homes and damaged 18 others in Pacific Palisades, while burning 6,130 acres. St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, built in 1941 was destroyed, along with the mill building. A guest home was destroyed on the Presbyterian Conference Grounds, the Josepho Ranch was destroyed, the Murphy Ranch, the Will Rogers Get-Away cabin and Boy Scout Camp buildings – although the Main Lodge at the Boy Scout camp escaped the fire.

On “Experiencing,” a Pacific Palisades resident wrote “My family’s home came very close to being destroyed in the Mandeville fire. A few things I remember: 1) the speed of the fire. When I got home from High School, I literally thought the fire might be near our home sometime in the next day or two. We were evacuating within two hours; 2) the size of the fire. There is something terrifying about a 50-60 wall of flames several miles wide coming towards you. Trying to defend your home with a garden hose felt like a bad joke; 3) the smell of the fire. I get an awful feeling every time I smell a fire – bad memories of October 1978: and 4) the SOUND of the fire. This was perhaps the scariest thing of all. I still remember the low, loud roar. It was surreal.

“Our family was very fortunate that the winds shifted just was the fire approached our street. Other families were not so lucky loosing not only their homes, but everything inside.”

In the Los Angeles fire archives, it notes that “some Palisades residents complained about the lack of firemen to save their houses.” Many Palisadians were unaware that the 1978 fire was one of three major fires that broke out in a 12-hour period – including one in Agoura and in the Sierra Madre mountains north of Pasadena.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and City Councilman Marvin Braude praised the city Fire Department for the way it battled the Mandeville blaze. “This fire department, operating under the circumstances of one of the largest brush fires in the history of the city, did an outstanding job,” Bradley said.

Fire officials would criticize city government for issuing personnel cutbacks through Proposition 13 and claimed that the LAFD’s delayed response could be attributed to their shortage of manpower.

The Santa Ana winds had resulted in dropping city power lines, which had sparked the initial brush fires. The City was held liable and eventually paid $8.5 million to twenty-two Mandeville residents and eight insurance companies.

The Agoura fire was started by a 15-year-old who used a lit cigarette wrapped in a matchbook to start the fire.

The 1978 Fire burned 30 homes in Pacific Palisades.

This entry was posted in Accidents/Fires. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *