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29 L.A. firefighters lost in 1933 in Griffith Park blaze

July 01, 2013|By Jack Dolan
  • A photo published Oct. 4, 1933 of the Griffith Park fire.
A photo published Oct. 4, 1933 of the Griffith Park fire. (Los Angeles Times )

This post and headline have been corrected, as noted below.

The deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona on Sunday is the worst such tragedy in the U.S. since 1933, when 29 lost their lives to a wildfire in Griffith Park.

The 1933 blaze broke out Oct. 3, while thousands of civilians were clearing trails and maintaining roads in Griffith Park as part of a Depression-era jobs program.

The first smoke was reported around 2 p.m., as temperatures soared toward 100 degrees with little wind. The workers turned their attention to fight the blaze.

Around 3 p.m., the wind shifted, trapping the doomed laborers on a hillside of Mineral Wells Canyon, with the fire raging toward them from below, according to an account on the Conference of California Historical Societies website.

"You could tell the progress of the fire by the screams," one man said. "The flames would catch a man and his screams would reach an awful pitch. Then there would be an awful silence — then you would hear another scream. It was all over inside of seven minutes."

The professionalization of firefighting has made such tragedies relatively rare in the modern era. But battling wildfires is still an extremely risky business.

On July 6, 1994, 14 lost their lives in the Storm King Mountain fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo. They, too, were trapped when a wind-driven blaze blew up a hill.

The firefighters lost in Arizona on Sunday were members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew — an elite wild-lands firefighting unit sponsored by the Prescott, Ariz., Fire Department.

Gov. Jan Brewer on Monday announced that flags would be lowered to half-staff to pay homage to the fallen firefighters.

“This is as dark a day as I can remember," Brewer said in a statement late Sunday night. “It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: Fighting fires is dangerous work."

The team went missing as the evacuated town of Yarnell was ravaged by the fire, fanned by winds sometimes exceeding 40 mph and temperatures approaching 100 degrees. One official estimated that 200 structures had been lost.

[For the record, 12:11 p.m. July 1: An earlier version of this post and headline incorrectly stated that 30 firefightes died in the Griffith Park fire in 1933; the correct number is 29.]

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jack.dolan@latimes.com

@jackdolanLAT

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