'Tragedy trimmed in mink:' 50 years after the Bel Air fire disaster

Los Angeles Fire Department

A frame from 'Design for Disaster,' a documentary film about the 1961 Bel Air fire.

Los Angeles Fire Department

A fire roars in this scene from 'Design for Disaster.'

A scene from 'Design for Disaster.'

Los Angeles Police Department

Officials gather to discuss the fire in this scene from 'Design for Disaster.'

Los Angeles Fire Department

Firefighters struggle to put out the 1961 fire in this scene from 'Design for Disaster.'

Los Angeles Fire Department

A scene from 'Design for Disaster.'

Los Angeles Fire Department

The fire seen through the trees in this scene from 'Design for Disaster.'

Fifty years ago today, Los Angeles experienced one of the most dramatic and destructive fires in Southland history. Hundreds of homes burned to the ground in Bel Air. The disaster provided lessons in future fire prevention.

Life Magazine called it "a tragedy trimmed in mink." The fire destroyed nearly 500 posh homes in Bel Air and Brentwood. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate, including celebrities Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The 405 freeway was brand new that year and considered a great manmade fire barrier, but flames jumped across it.

"If we don't get more help, 15 more homes are going up," a firefighter said.

As the fire spread quickly, KTLA sent pictures to viewers around the country from its first news-chopper.

As families tried to leave, traffic on narrow canyon roads became another nightmare. Santa Ana winds carried burning embers to rooftops far ahead of the main fire, sparking new ones.

Even Hollywood?'s glitterati and the political elite fought back flames. Then-Vice President Richard Nixon was living on Bundy and he took to the roof with a hose. Actors Maureen O'Hara and Fred MacMurray risked their lives to save their homes.

Several fires fused together to create 10 miles of flames. Newspapers at the time said "fire threatened the brand new community of fashionable Pacific Palisades."

In the end the loss of so many homes was blamed on building materials. Cedar-shake shingles on roofs went up faster than fire-ready charcoal. They were later banned.

The L.A. Fire Department put out a documentary on fire called "Design for Disaster." William Conrad narrated in the detective story style of the early 1960s.

Despite the scale of destruction, no one died in the Bel Air fire that burned Nov. 6 and 7 in 1961.

Watch the documentary here:

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