Early one morning 32 years ago this week, police and firefighters hustled sleepy residents out of their homes and apartments in a four-square-block area of Anaheim, just west of Disneyland, as Santa Ana winds sparked a fire that blow torched their neighborhood. The 60 mph winds downed power lines and blew the sparks onto wood shake roofs and palm tree fronds. The shingles were tinder and the tree fronds lit matchsticks that flew from building to building. What followed was the worst single fire in Anaheim's history. More than 500 housing units -- 51 homes and apartments -- were damaged or destroyed and 1,500 people were left homeless. Thanks to some 350 firefighters no one was killed, and there were no serious injuries. I witnessed that fire, and it's still quite vivid in my memory.
I was a radio reporter back then, with a car equipped with a two-way radio. The sun was just coming up as I hit the road, and as I drove from Hollywood to Orange County the fierce winds made it a struggle to keep the car from blowing across the freeway lanes. I dodged all kinds of debris that was flying over the roadway, including large shards of plastic -- sections of business signs that the winds had pried off their frames. When I got off the freeway at Ball Road, in Anaheim, the streets were so thick with smoke that I could barely see more than a hundred feet in front of me.
I managed to find the fire command post, where police and fire officials would give us periodic updates. As soon as I got out of the car I was hit by a blast of heat; it was like stepping into a hot, smoky sauna. The thick yellowish smoke and blowing ash got in my throat and made my eyes tear. I saw people running in every direction. There were cars on fire. Palm trees with glowing fronds swayed over apartment houses. I had to watch the ground, too, because fire hoses were everywhere, and easy to stumble over. After interviewing a couple of evacuees, I ran back to the car to do a live report.
The fire created its own heat wave, and the car's interior was an oven. To transmit my report I had to run the engine, and to keep from passing out I used the air conditioner. The a/c had no recirculating feature, so outside air, with all the ash, was sucked into the car's cabin. In a short time it looked like I was sitting inside a snow globe. It was all I could do to keep from coughing, let alone choking. I filed an update every 20 minutes or so. For more than six hours I'd go from sauna to snow globe -- back and forth -- in all, more than a dozen times. Finally another reporter arrived to relieve me.
When I got back to the station, I just wanted to sit down and breathe some clean cool air. The program director walked up to me. "Gee, those were great reports. You sounded as though you were right in the middle of the fire!"
The Ball-Euclid Fire, as it was known, spawned legislation in Anaheim and other California cities restricting the use of untreated wood shake roofs. Also, it proved that under certain conditions, an urban area can ignite as quickly as a dry, grassy hillside. One other thing: now when reporters go out to cover fires, they take along protective gear for their eyes and lungs. I wish I had it back then.
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