“Are We Going to Wait for a Vicarious Sacrifice?”: A Photo of a San Gabriel Mountains Wildfire, September 1924

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Rapidly accelerating climate change is exacerbating our weather so that the current record-breaking heatwave of ten straight 100-degree days coupled with long-term drought creates the conditions for more frequent and severe wildfires, whether the massive ones in northern California, the large blaze near Hemet and one that threatens to expand significantly near Big Bear Lake. This is before we experience the hot blast of Santa Ana winds in the fall, during which the threat of fire is even greater.

Tonight’s post and its featured artifact from the Museum’s collection takes us back nearly a century to September 1924 when an approximately 50,000-acre conflagration broke out in San Gabriel Canyon and, after apparently being contained and controlled, erupted again and caused even more devastation and alarm. It was nearly three weeks before the blaze was finally extinguished, thanks for an enormous effort by professionals and a large number of volunteers, one of whom died toward the end, as well as a turn in the weather.

Los Angeles Express, 1 September 1924.

Following another massive fire in that region five years before, the 1924 conflagration also led to increasing calls for better methods of firefighting, including the use of chemicals, more efforts at reducing risk, and, notably, the need for reforestation. It also included a remarkable story with respect to the man who caused the blaze, yet not only expressed remorse, but worked on the fire lines when it restarted and hoped that his experience would be a warning to others.

It was early in the afternoon of 31 August, when Andy Gunsalus, a Los Angeles baker, camped in the gorgeous canyon above Azusa with his brother, wife and infant son. He casually lit a cigarette, thought his match went out and tossed it aside, only to find, within seconds, that it torched the dry brush and quickly got out of control, despite a brief effort to put out the flames. Terrified for his wife and child, Gunsalus got his family in the car and drove off, but a witness spotted the vehicle and its license plate and notified local authorities.

Los Angeles Record, 2 September 1924.

In short order, with abundant fuel sources, steep gullies and canyons and dry weather, the fire raced along the canyon as well as the west fork of the San Gabriel River. A few hundred volunteers, including some who were staying in the resort camps sprinkled throughout the canyon, were gathered at Monrovia as the initial concern was about Fish Canyon, at the west side of the canyon’s mouth near Duarte, and the beautiful setting of Monrovia Canyon, as well as the watershed which provided the life-giving fluid for that area.

By 2 September, the volunteer force climbed to 500 who were “valiantly attempting to stem the onrush of the forest fire,” reported the Monrovia News, which reported that an estimated 72 square miles was already consumed. Lines were established at Fish Canyon and on the west fork, but these efforts were proving fruitless, with part of the problem being the rugged terrain drawing flames rapidly up canyons and gullies as prevailing winds also drove the fire in multiple directions making it hard to responders to gain headway.

Los Angeles Times, 2 September 1924.

Despite the difficulties in dealing with the blaze, the Los Angeles Times editorial page stated that a reader shared a letter from a friend in Florida who expressed concern about fires throughout California, many of them caused by lightning strikes. The paper claimed that “California’s fires are being magnified in States which are jealous of the great and steadily increasing tide of travel to this region.” To allay fears of tourists, the paper claimed that “visitors are more in danger from alligators in Florida than from fires in California.”

Moreover, the times asserted that 90% of Californians wouldn’t have even known about the state’s wildfires if it wasn’t for media reporting and then sunnily averred that “there have been fires, all right, fires which have roused the State to vigorous action, even as “California still is happy and smiling.” Still, the piece ended with the admonition that careless citizens tossing cigarette butts while camping his State abroad, in addition to the harm he may do to our valuable forests and watersheds.”

Monrovia News, 5 September 1924.

While initial direction was by the federal forester, help was obtained by the county’s forester. As hot boulders rained down on San Gabriel Canyon Road, concern was also raised about the effect denuded slopes would have if there were heavy rains during the ensuing winter. On the 3rd, it was reported that about 5,000 acres were burned, that Roberts Camp was surrounded by flames, but saved, and that the west side of the canyon was contained. It was hoped a backfire started along a massive firebreak would halt the progress of the conflagration and allow for quick containment. The next day, a bit of rain seemed to help with progress, as well.

By late on the 4th, the fire was declared to be under control as hundreds of volunteers were allowed to return home after several long, intense days on the lines. The backfire was stated to have been the turning point in battling the blaze. Yet, while it was noted that there were likely to be areas of burning for the next few weeks, spreading was declared to be unlikely because they were surrounding by sections already scorched by the fire.

Times, 4 September 1924.

With that news, the Times of the 5th issued an editorial that, again, made some light of the subject as it opined that those camping in the mountains would do well to heed the example of the indigenous people and keep their fires low, adding that the needs of “overcivilized” people for heat and cooking did not require large fires that could get out of control.  Of course, that was not the case with this conflagration, as noted above.

On the 6th, William B. Greeley, head of the United States Forest Service, who happened to be in Los Angeles on an inspection tour and took general charge of firefighting efforts, heaped lavish praise on local officials.  Greeley noted that “we are keenly alive to the dangerous situation in California as regards the fire hazards in our forests” and that there were increases in federal fire officials and other measures taken.  In addition to calling for a change in the law prohibiting the throwing of any cigarettes or cigars from vehicles anywhere in the state, he told the paper,

As for the work being done by Los Angeles County through the county forestry department, I must say that I don’t know of any county in the country that touches the Los Angeles County forestry department for its effective fire protection organization.

With volunteers and county personnel released and some federal firefighters remaining to guard the charred locations, it appeared the fire was one for the history books at some 8,000 acres, while Greeley left for San Diego to continue his tour and Gunsalus was arraigned in Azusa for a misdemeanor complaint for starting the blaze.  There were four charges for which he pled guilty to two and his sentence was a six-month jail stint that was suspended, while he was also fined $250 and put on probation for a year including reporting to the forestry department and being required to assist with fire suppression.  Moreover, his brother Carlos was, at the last minute, charged and given the same sentence, with employees of Andy raising the money to pay his fine, while a woman who said she was a friend paid Carlos’ fine.

News, 8 September 1924.

It turned out that Andy Gunsalus was needed for firefighting duties much sooner than anticipated when the San Gabriel Canyon blaze suddenly burst forth again the following afternoon, while Greeley hurried back and federal and county foresters and associated also rushed to the scene.   A strong wind pushed the reinvigorated blaze into Roberts Canyon and then westward and the work of 1,000 men to combat the conflagration before was essentially rendered for naught by this much bigger version.  As it raced into the west fork, the fear was that it would be nearly unstoppable, including in Fish and Monrovia canyons as well as in towards the backcountry to the north.

By the 12th, the blaze had reached such proportions that a 17-mile long backfire were set to meet the main fire line and the News dramatically stated that the pair would “lock in [a] torrid embrace and, for lack of more virgin areas to burn, die, thus ending of the most disastrous forest fires in the history of the Angelus [Angeles] forest.”  Hundreds of men worked on another enormous firebreak to halt the western progress of the fire, starting from Fish Canyon towards Monrovia Peak and then to the west fork.

News, 12 September 1924.

Meanwhile, at Monrovia Canyon, a heroic effort was made by workers to set backfires and try to prevent the flames from engulfing this beautiful area that, as noted above, provided water for the city of Monrovia.  The concern at the west fork was that rapid burning would then endanger Big Santa Anita Canyon and its many cabins and camps and then be a threat to Mt. Wilson including its famed observatory.

On the 13th, the Times reported that the situation at Monrovia Canyon was so dire that the large park there and the watershed, as well, were being all but given up for lost.  It was noted, though, that only 5% of the water used by Monrovia residents came from the Canyon, but there were other reasons to despair of the loss of the natural beauty of that area, so popular with locals because of its ease of access.  The paper noted that the county and federal governments told its firefighting officials that no expense was to be spared in stopping the fire and saving as much of the forest as possible as the fire was in four different fronts over a 25-mile span.

News, 16 September 1924.

Close to Duarte, flames raced down the southern mountain slopes and approached the ranch of a well-known professional pool player, W.A. Spinks, and workers from the Louis L. Bradbury Estate, with the Bradbury mansion just south of Spinks’ property, which is now the tony gated city of Bradbury assisted federal forest personnel at that location.  Over 500 men scrambled, meantime, to complete the firebreak toward the west fork and halt the momentum towards Big Santa Anita Canyon.

With nine miles of backfire set on the 15th, it finally looked like the situation was turning in a positive direction with the forest supervisor, R.H. Charlton, telling the News that “our backfire last night held in fine shape and, at the present time, everything is very promising.”  He cautioned, however, that there was no bragging given what happened a week prior and more backfires were being planned for the 16th for another two-mile segment.

Record, 18 September 1924.

On the 16th, the Times offered a more serious editorial concerning deforestation, claiming that if all the forests of southern California were removed “the people of the United States would probably rise in a body to come to the assistance of suffering California.”  It noted that deforestation in China caused many problems including from erosion due to flooding of denuded areas and that American assistance was rendered to that country.

Yet, the paper continued,

We are second to China in the destruction of our forests.  Forest fires are sweeping over our country.  As Abbot Kinney [a conservationist and founder of Venice near Santa Monica] put it: “We stand by and fiddle while our forests burn.”  The demands of progress and civilization are exhausting our timber supply and we are doing nothing—or almost nothing—to replace what we are cutting.  Must we have a vicarious sacrifice to make us rise to the occasion?

The editorial went on that a reader could fly (this was still a novelty for most people) over the forest and see that “seven-eighths of the national forests of the South are gone” and “three-fourths of the watershed has been burned over in the last five years,” including the huge conflagration of 1919, while fires in 1882 and 1904 were also mentioned by the News that day.  With land burned away, brush there under a decade old and other issues, “erosion has set in” and this “is appalling,” though “it seems to be nobody’s business.”

Times, 16 September 1924.

The paper observed how important healthy forests were by noting that “irrigation, shelter belts and transportation, which are all entirely dependent upon the forests, are necessary to the prosperity of California.” It added that the American Reforestation Association in Los Angeles, which Gunsalus joined as he sought to have his example be a lesson to others, was readying a promotional effort through the press, radio, motion pictures, schools, clubs, and homes to impress upon the public that value of trees and called on everyone to “take a part in this great public-spirited movement,” concluding that “there is a need for a prompt and vigorous action now.”

Still, the fire continued to burn for a couple more days as the second big backfire was materially aided by the weather, with heavy fog and misty rain settling into the mountains just as “men were about to reach their physical limit” and smothering much of the flames on the morning of the 19th.  Cheered by the providential arrival of cooler temperatures and precipitation, exhausted workers caught a second wind and got into “cold trailing” mode, scraping embers along fire lines back into burned areas, beating out flames and making the line less susceptible to flare-ups.  As long as the winds remained calm and didn’t blow embers into unburned areas, the blaze was considered under control at least.

Express, 19 September 1924.

There was at least one fatality late in the effort as 22-year-old Lee Van Buren, a La Habra resident and groundskeeper at the Hacienda Country Club, which opened four years prior in the newly established community of La Habra Heights, was killed when flames leaped past a boulder and engulfed him as he tried to escape but plunged into a fire-filled ravine.   Adding to the tragedy was that a brother was killed months before in a car crash, while another was home recovering from burns suffered a few days prior fighting the fire.

Notably, Pasadena Fire Department chief Ernest F. Coop appealed to the scientists at the renowned California Institute of Technology to “make experiments and perfect a chemical which could be sprayed from airplanes on burning forests.”  He added that such a material “could be thrown in bomb form or from a spray” and, so applied, “would effective throttle the fire.”  With Fire Prevention Week coming up from 5-11 October, Coop’s suggestion was to be discussed at length and, of course, later came the development of foams and other material used extensively today.

Finally, the Los Angeles Express of 19 September noted that “the fire-swept area of 42,000 acres in the Angeles national forest should bring home to the people of California the urgent necessity of forest protection and reforestation,” as explained by George W. Barnes of the American Forestation Service.  He noted that an estimated $200 million in losses were experienced in fires that year in timber, vacation grounds and resorts, grazing land and more.  When plans for dealing with the local forest, however, were submitted to the Board of Supervisors, they were rejected, though the reason was not stated.  The latest conflagration was estimated to cause between $25 million and $100 million in damage including water lost as erosion sent it to watercourses and to the sea rather than into the ground.

While forest fire prevention policies turned out to contribute to many of the problems we’ve faced with wildfires in recent decades, there is still much for us to see in this 1924 fire that is resonant now nearly a century later, though the existential threat of climate change is obviously a foundational factor today.

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