Calamity Canyon: This Week’s Round-Up of Hollywoodland Misadventures

May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

Fire Hydrant on Mulholland Highway 5/26/14/Courtesy Elias M. Saade

Fire Hydrant on Mulholland Highway 5/26/14/Courtesy Elias M. Saade

As I was driving along Franklin today around 3pm, three fire trucks roared past and up Beachwood Canyon, sirens blaring. Once on Beachwood Drive, I pulled over twice more to let emergency vehicles pass. Meanwhile, helicopters arrived and circled the Hollywood Sign. What was happening? Apparently two women climbing illegally to the Sign got stuck in a ravine under the letter D and needed rescue. (Note to potential climbers: Not only is climbing to the Sign illegal, but it’s much harder than it looks.)

Before anyone writes, “You knew the Sign was there when you moved here!,” or in the case of LA Curbed, “NIMBY,” let me say that before GPS became standard on cell phones, such emergencies rarely occurred. Moreover, this is the third incident in the same area during the past five days. And it’s only May 30th.

Here’s a recap:

1. Sunday, May 25th, 10:30pm: A woman walking her dog in the dark along the high wall at the dead-end of Mulholland Highway falls off, breaking her arm. She is rescued by the LAFD after a lengthy spate of sirens and helicopters. The dog is OK.

2. Monday, May 26th, 6:30pm: A car–apparently belonging to the owner of one of the tour bus companies–hits the fire hydrant near the same end of Mulholland Highway, sending a plume of water down Ledgewood. Fire trucks are called to stop the flooding. (This has happened several times before, yet no barrier has been erected to protect the hydrant.)

3. Friday, May 30th, 3pm: See above.

To those planning to visit Beachwood Canyon, those signs that say “no smoking” and “no trespassing” are there for good reason: your safety. And it’s really best to stay away from that hydrant.

Setting Our House on Fire: Hollywood Sign Tourists and Their Cigarettes

July 22, 2012 § 6 Comments

Around 6pm on Monday, July 9th, fire trucks roared up Beachwood Drive, setting off a chorus of howls among the Canyon’s coyotes (as well as a certain rescue dog who, I discovered, can howl while she walks). The LAFD was responding to a brush fire that started when a tourist tossed a cigarette into the dry brush at the Lookout on Canyon Lake Drive. This careless action–made in spite of No Smoking signs at site–threatened hundreds of homes, which is why 75 firefighters were deployed to extinguish it. Here’s an LAFD photo of the aftermath:

LAFD Squashes Hollywood Brush Fire

As someone who not only lives in the Canyon but spends time at Lake Hollywood Park, just below the lookout, I wasn’t surprised by the fire. I often see people, both tourists and Angelenos, smoking there, and they all do it with impunity. In the past couple of years, I’ve started telling smokers about the fire danger and asking them to put their cigarettes out; usually they do it without complaint. The only person who has refused, ironically, is an acquaintance of mine, who clearly felt I was overreacting because it wasn’t particularly hot or dry that day. Like most people, he didn’t think he could cause an accidental fire. One local woman takes cell phone photos of non-compliant smokers; when they ask why, she says so if there’s a fire I can show it to the police. I wish I could be so brave.

This might be a good time to remember the Hollywood Hills fire of May 12, 1961, which started at the northern edge of Beachwood Canyon and caused enormous devastation before it was extinguished the next day. An LAFD report by Inspector Otto Firgens reads:

Due to the heavy brush, high winds, low humidity and rugged terrain the fire developed into major proportions within 15 minutes of the original alarm. A Major Emergency was declared at 7:59 pm….The fire continued to burn out of control toward Mt. Lee and the Griffith Park Observatory to the east. It was spreading and had already developed a 4 or 5 mile perimeter. It raced up one canyon and down the other, driven by winds which at times reached 67 miles per hour.

In the end, 17 houses in Beachwood Canyon were either damaged or destroyed by the fire. Among the total losses was the home of Laura and Aldous Huxley. Because they left with only what they could carry, they lost not only most of their possessions but all of Aldous’s papers and manuscripts. The only manuscript Huxley saved was his book in progress, Island. Also burned to the ground was the home of their friend Ginny Pfeiffer. More than 50 years later, neither house has been rebuilt, though the Huxley property was sold after Laura’s death in 2007. The foundations of Pfeiffer’s house on Deronda Drive are visible to tourists trying to reach the Hollywood Sign, but I doubt anyone notices. Here’s what the fire left behind:

Foundations of the Pfeiffer House on Deronda Drive/Hope Anderson Productions

Additional source: LAFD archives

Hollywood’s Trial By Fire

January 4, 2012 § 4 Comments


The fires started in the early morning hours of December 29th. The first broke out in the parking structure of an apartment building on N. Fuller, burning four cars and damaging an apartment above it. Then came three trash fires nearby, on N. Poinsettia, Sunset and McCadden. The arrests soon afterward–of a 22-year-old man, Samuel Arrington, in connection with the first two fires, and a 55-year-old man, Alejandro Pineda, in connection with the last–gave us reason to believe these baffling and unanticipated arsons had ended. 

No such luck. The next night, December 30, saw 19 fires in Hollywood and West Hollywood. Most were started in carports and garages and spread to the apartments above them. But one of the fires, in Laurel Canyon, attracted notice because it burned a relatively out-of-the-way single-family home that once housed Jim Morrison of the Doors. As it happens, the current owner is an acquaintance of mine. She woke up to find her car on fire and flames spreading to the house and managed to escape, along with her cat. [Note: I’ve since found out she was renting the house.]

By New Year’s Eve, Hollywood and West Hollywood were on high alert. I was surrounded by patrol cars as I drove north on La Cienega at 10pm, and found Hollywood Boulevard lined with more police cars than cabs. On Argyle, there seemed to be as many uniformed officers as revelers. Nevertheless, that night the fires spread to the Valley, with others in West Hollywood.

On New Year’s Day, there was only one reported fire. It took place in the Valley and apparently wasn’t related to the others. The arsons resumed on January 2nd with 11 fires, 9 in the Valley and two in West Hollywood. There probably would have been more if not for the arrest of the suspect, 24-year-old Harry Burkhart, by a quick-thinking reserve sheriff’s deputy at Sunset and Fairfax at 3am. Burkhart, a German national who was captured on video leaving the scene of a fire in the parking garage of Hollywood and Highland, was found with fire-starting materials in his van. He has been charged with 37 counts of arson.

The rampage followed Burkhart’s outburst in the courtroom where his mother, 53-year-old Dorothee Burkhart, has been fighting extradition to Germany, where she is wanted on multiple fraud charges. A Russian who speaks limited German, Ms. Burkhart apparently is a career grifter known in Germany for taking deposits for apartments she did not own, and for bilking the surgeon who augmented her breasts. During her time in Los Angeles, she started a business offering “sensual Tantra massage” in the Sunset Blvd. apartment she shared with her son. In court yesterday, she described him as “mentally ill” and, according to the LA Times, “appeared disoriented without her son at her side.”

Meanwhile, Harry Burkhart has earned the nickname “Hollywood Feuerteufel”–“Hollywood Fire Devil–in the German press. He is on suicide watch, and his bond was set at $2.85 million.  

As for Hollywood, things are quieter now than they were during the arsons, when sirens and helicopters were heard all night long. But when a fire truck roared up Beachwood Canyon earlier this evening, sirens blaring, I felt an all-too-familiar dread.

Additional source:

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