29 Firefighters Killed 90 Years Ago in Griffith Park Fire

Oct. 3, 2023
When a fire broke out in Los Angeles' Griffith Park while workers were cleaning the park, many were tasked with fighting the fire that claimed their lives.

A small debris pile fire 90 years ago at the Mineral Wells Canyon in Griffith Park, in Los Angeles, CA, would end up being one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history.

The fire started shortly after 2 p.m. on Oct. 3, 1933, while thousands of workers were trying to clear dry brush and build trails in the park. The conditions for the 40 cents per hour workers were brutal as the temperature surpassed 100 degrees F by noon.

Supervisors were able to convince enough men to switch to firefighting duties, however, the only means of extinguishment were trying to beat the small flames out with shovels, because there was no piped water accessible. When the Los Angeles Fire Department arrived on the scene at 2:26 p.m., it was too difficult to get the fire under control.

The first eye on the fire was from golf professional Bobby Ross, who said that he and a couple other friends saw smoke coming up from a nearby hill. Meanwhile, Parks Commissioner Frank Shearer saw smoke move halfway up the slope of Mineral Wells Canyon. The location of the smoke was concerning as it was 150 yards away from the golf clubhouse and just 80 feet away from a working crew.

Supervisors were ordering workers to go into the burning Mineral Wells Canyon and Dam Canyon. Chaos ensued when the wind direction changed around 3 p.m., shooting the fire up Dam Canyon, a heavily constructed firebreak, towards the workers. As the flames engulfed the park, workers were attempting to outrun the 20-mph flames.

The fire was finally ruled under control later that evening, but not before 29 "firefighters" were killed, more than 150 were injured and 47 acres of land were burned. The 29 firefighter deaths still stand to this day as the third-most in U.S. history, behind the attacks on Sept. 11 and the Great Fire of 1910. Additionally, up until 2018, the Griffith Park fire was the deadliest wildfire in California history.

The count of 29 wasn’t established until weeks after the fire because of inept record keeping. The District Attorney’s office listed 27 dead on scene  with two more passing at the hospital. With some alleged corruption on top of the inability to properly keep records, there’s suspicion that the death toll was minimized and the highest number that has been discussed is 58.

We remember the 29 firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice that day:

  • George Anderson
  • Alberto Armendariz
  • John Benson
  • Clarence Berning
  • Walter Bernor
  • Wright Brewington
  • Franklin Brown
  • Herman Burnette
  • John Dargo
  • Isaac Grayson
  • William Guy
  • Israel Hanan Jr.
  • William Henderson
  • Charles Hughey
  • Irwin Hunt
  • Louis Kronheimer
  • William Lorenz
  • Harold Mahn
  • Robert Miles
  • Charles Porter
  • Jesus Rivera
  • Elmer Robinson
  • Perry Smith
  • James Sweeney
  • Henry Taylor
  • James Viorato
  • Austin Williams
  • Frank Zambrano

The aftermath was a gruesome sight as the bodies were so badly burned that identification was near impossible. The only indication of who the person was through personal belongings that barely survived the fire.

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