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James Puz: A brush with fiery destruction

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The number of fires consuming the western part of the US is now in the dozens with new ones igniting regularly, hot embers being carried by winds to drought-plagued forests and meadows. With record heat and little or no rain in sight, the future looks pretty bleak.

All of the destruction (plus that in other parts of the world due to wild fires) reminds me of the yearly wild fires the Los Angeles Basin experienced on an annual basis when we lived in Azusa, California.

The Bel Aire/Brentwood fire in November 1961 devoured over 16,000 acres and more than 500 homes over two days. The notorious hot Santa Ana winds contributed greatly to the horrible calamity, fanning the flames and causing rapid expansion of the sheer walls of smoke and fiery devastation.

Closer to home, a brush/wild fire in 1958 (I think the summer) in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains gave residents a first-hand look at what destruction can be wrought when dry vegetation provides almost limitless fuel for merciless flames.

Portions of Azusa, Glendora, Monrovia and other small communities with boundaries creeping up into the foothills were all at risk.

At night the bright reddish spots of flame dotted everywhere on the mountain side, looking like giant campfires while during daylight hours (and using binoculars) we could watch fire engines, bulldozers and their crews move along the various fire lines and fire breaks that laced their way across foothills and lower portions of the San Gabriel’s.

Large plumes of black smoke rose straight up from the charred and burning areas with ashes covering homes and businesses alike. Mount Wilson, with its TV and radio antennas and observatory was in jeopardy.

The fire had crept ever-nearer to the home of the owner of the small machine shop my dad worked at. Mr. Valentine asked his workers if they’d be willing to help save his home. Everyone said “Yes,” the shop was closed and all the men ended up using shovels, rakes and garden hoses to stave off the approaching flames ... the home was saved, reflecting how much regard the men had for their employer.

An ironic element to the devastating fire was the thrill for me and Steve, who lived across the street, of watching veteran WW II bombers flying towards the burning areas to drop their loads of slurry onto and around the numerous, individual fires, then head back to Ontario Airport for more.

The planes were known as “borate bombers” because the slurry or fire retardant was a mixture of NaCa borate and water. It formed an emulsion that was thicker than water, allowing it to adhere to foliage and the surrounding terrain. It was dyed a reddish-pink to help guide the pilots for future drops.

The bombers flew right over our houses on their way to the fire zone nearest us. I’m not sure how many of each type of plane there was but there was probably a couple of TBM Avengers with at least one B-17 Flying Fortress and one amphibious PBY Catalina.

All of the vintage warbirds had been greatly modified by having internal tanks installed in their fuselages, using the existing bombay for the B-17(s) and TBM planes and creating an internal “bombay” for the PBY(s). Original PBYs carried their ordnance (bombs, torpedoes and depth charges) under their wings.

The trip to and from the airport didn’t take long since Ontario was only about 20 miles from where the fires were burning, so my dad took me and Steve to watch the planes come and go but we saw only one while we were there (it was late afternoon).

When we arrived, a PBY, sitting on the tarmac like a squatting duck, was being loaded with the slurry solution (mostly likely for its last flight of the day). The sides of former Navy patrol bomber were splashed with the retardant from earlier drops. The color still reminds me of a very pink Pepto Bishop!

The fires were finally extinguished about a week after they started. However, I remember quite clearly what all of us in that part of the San Gabriel Valley witnessed ... and sweated out ... until the last ember was snuffed out. Life went back to normal but the ever-present threat of another such fire remained ... and does to this day.

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