Written by Brytanya Le, Staff Writer
Brush fires in the Los Angeles County are no surprise. The infamous Santa Ana winds, the statewide drought, and dry spells are essential factors in sparking wildfires. Sunday, Nov 6, marked the 55th anniversary of the Bel Air fire, which swept through Bel Air, Brentwood, and even part of the Mount Saint Mary’s University Chalon campus back in 1961.
The fire began on November 5, 1961, when a bulldozer struck some rocks and sent sparks flying into nearby brushes. The surrounding area immediately went up in flames as the harsh Santa Ana winds spread the fire around Bel Air.
The 405 freeway had just been constructed that year so many people had assumed it would stop the fire in its tracks. However, the fire did the unexpected and jumped over the Sepulveda Pass. From there, the Brentwood community and Mount Saint Mary’s College (as the university was called at the time) were directly standing in its path.
Thousands of residents in the surrounding Brentwood and Bel Air communities were forced to evacuate their homes. Some notable people who had to evacuate their homes include then-former Vice President Nixon, actors Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor, singer Billy Vaughn, film producer Keith Daniels, and many others.
The Chalon students were beginning their first day of midterms week when the fire had reached the campus on November 6, 1961. The hot temperature (which was 83°F that day) and the scorching Santa Ana winds proved to be a threat to the college when smoke clouds started to loom over Brady Hall. In the early afternoon, the college was forced to close as the entire Mount community had to evacuate the campus.
Although the majority of the college was spared from the fire, some parts of the campus were not as lucky. Rossiter Hall and a shrine of St. Thérèse of Lisieux were the first places to be destroyed by the fire, with only Rossiter’s walls and the scorched statue of St. Thérèse remaining. The roofs of the CSJ sisters’ House of Studies (now called the Carondelet Center) was burned and spread to other residential homes from there.
When the fire was blown to the west side of the campus, it first destroyed the Mount Bowl, which was an outdoor amphitheater. It was never rebuilt after the fire, but it was once located in the area where the parking structure stands now.
The Bel Air fire had also managed to destroy the Marian Hall of Fine Arts on the west side of the college. All of the college’s instruments and equipment used by the art and music departments were lost. Unfortunately, that also meant the Mount’s massive art and music libraries were forever lost within the flames. The Marian Hall was also never rebuilt because it was replaced by the Humanities building, which still exists to this day.
Many faculty members and sisters lamented over their losses, which included photographs, works, and other personal belongings. Fortunately, the efforts of many generous donors helped rebuild the college by donating funds, textbooks, and other necessary equipment.
The next day, the Mount community was easily able to clean up the rubble on its campus, with the help of Loyola University (now called Loyola Marymount University) men and even the U.S. Navy, by sending Seabees from the U.S.S. Hornet. Students were able to resume their midterms as scheduled, and life at the college slowly began returning to normal. However, it would take a few more years until the reconstruction was complete.
The Bel Air fire’s wrath had become breaking news. The story featured in local newspapers such as The Tidings and the Los Angeles Times, but it also managed to get a spot in the Life magazine, which called it a “tragedy trimmed in mink.” Letters of sympathy and concern poured into the college from other institutions and organizations across the nation. However, the most touching letters came from 35 eighth grade boys at Santa Clara Elementary School in Oxnard, who set up a food sale at their school to raise funds for the college.
Shortly after the fire was extinguished, the Los Angeles Fire Department created a documentary called “Design for Disaster” which was narrated by William Conrad. The city also established new brush clearance and fire safety policies, and banned the use of wood shingle roofs on buildings.
This was not the first time the Mount has been threatened with wildfires. Ever since the 1930s, the Chalon campus has often been exposed to hot and dry fall weather. However, the Bel Air fire is the only fire that has managed to destroy parts of the Chalon campus.
For more information on the Bel Air fire, please click here or drop by the Mount’s Archives Collection on the 1st floor of the Charles Willard Coe Library! Vicky McCargar, the Mount’s archivist, will gladly show you original photographs, news article clippings, and letters from the Bel Air fire, as well as many other things!
You can keep up with Vicky’s latest findings on her blog here.