Los Angeles County fire officials are conducting a major brush-clearing operation in the Baldwin Hills area aimed at preventing a recurrence of the catastrophic fire two years ago that destroyed 48 homes, damaged 18 others and left three people dead.
The fire prevention operation is are under way because a "drier than usual" fire season is expected this year, said Ray O. Shackelford, assistant fire chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
He said the operation will focus on removing brush in the Baldwin Hills, Baldwin Vista and View Park communities and the nearby Baldwin Hills State Recreation Park. "We will be bringing in bulldozers and hand crews to clear the areas, and hopefully the work will be completed by June 15," he said.
Today, on Don Carlos Drive there is little evidence of the devastating blaze that swept the hillside on July 2, 1986, and reduced many of the homes in the upper-middle-class community to rubble. Most of the burned-out structures have been replaced by modern two-story homes with spectacular hilltop views of Los Angeles. Still, some lots remain vacant, a constant reminder of the deliberately set fire. No one has ever been charged with the crime.
Since the fire, Shackelford said, the county has reduced the amount of vegetation on many of the nearby hillsides. "It still is a hazard, just as it is continuing to be a hazard throughout California," he added.
In addition to removing the weeds, he said, the department is notifying homeowners to clear their property of debris. "If they don't, then the county will do it and add the cost of the work to their property tax bill," he said.
Mae W. Gordon, a Baldwin Hills resident, said she is pleased with the work that the county has recently done to reduce the threat of another fire. "I think that the county and the people are more aware of the problems, and more is being done now than before (to prevent a fire)," she said. "That was a nightmare, I hope I never have to relive it."
Gordon still shudders when she recalls the day the fire swept through much of her community. For much of the time, she said, she was trapped in her house as the sparks from the flames ignited homes all around hers, but her house was spared. However, the smoke inhalation she experienced during the blaze still causes her to speak with a raspy voice, she said.
Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who asked the Fire Department to take preventive action, said: "It is extremely important that we take strong action to protect lives and property. The hot days of summer are almost upon us and it is time to eliminate this brush hazard now."
To remove the brush, the county is using women firefighters from its Malibu prison camp. About 45 firefighters are cutting grass and shrubs and removing debris to make trails for firebreaks, or areas that act to "contain fires, prevent them from spreading," said Horst Zimmermann, a battalion chief.
Robin Jones, 26, one of the prison workers, said she felt privileged to be spending part of her three-year sentence working in a familiar area. "This is like a visit home," she said. "I used to come to this park all the time. I used to live around here."
That was eight months ago, before she sold narcotics to an undercover police officer. Today, she works with a McLeode, a sharp tool used to cut brush and clear trails.
"It hurts being so close to home, it hurts knowing that my two children are so close," she said, pausing a moment before getting back to the task at hand. "This is hard work. It's hard work for women, but it is good work, better than I was doing," she said.