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Hillside Heroes

Veterans of the fight against the Bel-Air/Brentwood fire mark the devastating blaze's 50th anniversary

November 07, 2011|Jason Song
  • Bill Stephens, 77, pats Eugene Hopkins, 92, on the back on Sunday at a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bel Air/Brentwood fire. Stephens and Hopkins fought the fire together from Los Angeles Fire Department Engine 92. Hopkins was an engineer and retired as a captain; he was a firefighter from 1946 to 1977.
Bill Stephens, 77, pats Eugene Hopkins, 92, on the back on Sunday at a ceremony… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Fifty years ago Sunday, Los Angeles firefighter Frank Borden knew the conditions were ripe for a big blaze. The winds were dry and strong.

So when Borden saw smoke billowing from the top of Mulholland Drive around 8 a.m., "I knew we were in for it."

"There was already a lot of smoke and we knew there were a lot of homes up there and it was trouble," said Borden, who was assigned to Fire Station 92 on Pico Boulevard.

It took the 24-year-old Borden and about 2,500 other firefighters two days to contain the disastrous conflagration, which came to be known as the Bel-Air/Brentwood fire.

It caused about $30 million in damage and destroyed 500 homes, including the mansions of stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Burt Lancaster.

On Sunday, veterans of the firefight gathered to commemorate the somber anniversary. The ceremony at Fire Station 71 featured an archive of photos of actor Robert Taylor and Richard Nixon, then the former vice president, and his wife, Pat, among others, fleeing their homes. The firefighters recalled spending hours trying to extinguish the flames the day the fire broke out, Nov. 6, 1961, before water pressure in the hills began to ebb.

"I'd never seen anything like it," Borden said. "The flames were spreading so fast."

At the time, many homes had wood shingles. While some residents, including Nixon, watered their roofs before leaving, Borden and other firefighters began yanking off dry ones, hoping it would save homes.

While on one roof, Borden and a number of his colleagues were inadvertently covered with spatters of light-colored flame retardant dropped by a low-flying plane.

"They looked like white bugs," said Eugene B. Hopkins, who was driving the engine that Borden rode on.

After the blaze, the City Council passed a brush-clearing ordinance, although it took nearly 20 years for the panel to ban wood shingle roofs because of heavy lobbying from roofing companies.

Even though the Bel-Air/Brentwood fire burned more than 16,000 acres, no one was killed.

Borden, 73, said he gets nostalgic when watching news coverage of fires such as the 2009 Station blaze.

"Even at my age, I'd still like to be out there," the 73-year-old said. "That's part of the life of a firefighter, trying to help people."

jason.song@latimes.com

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