Training, accountability: 3 lessons from the Griffith Park fire

Numbers are no substitute for technical skills and firefighter training


The deadliest wildfire in California history is now the Camp Fire which began in early November and burned for weeks. This fire consumed over 150,000 acres, destroying the town of Paradise and other surrounding communities, and killing at least 85 people.

The fire that had previously had the designation as being deadliest was one that occurred under very different circumstances.

On Oct. 3, 1933, a small fire ignited in Griffith Park, a large tract of public land entirely within the City of Los Angeles. More than 3,700 men were working in the park, doing maintenance and construction projects for 40 cents an hour under a state welfare program. The Great Depression was at its depth then, and people were grateful for any work they could get.

The tragedy in Griffith Park occurred over 80 years ago, but there are strong lessons from this fire that resonate today. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
The tragedy in Griffith Park occurred over 80 years ago, but there are strong lessons from this fire that resonate today. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

When smoke was first sighted from a small debris fire near the golf course, no one was particularly concerned. The fire seemed insignificant, and there were unlimited personnel resources nearby. As one man said, “It was just a lark to us. It didn't look dangerous then.”

However, within an hour, 29 men would be dead, and another 150 injured as a result of this fire. Workers deployed to fight the fire, armed only with shovels and with no training in firefighting became trapped in a canyon and burned to death. Others were injured or killed when dangerous back fires lit by inexperienced people turned on them and engulfed them.

There are several important lessons that may be learned from this tragic event, even 85 years later.

1. Don’t underestimate a small blaze

The first lesson is, sometimes you need to sweat the small stuff. This fire was small when it started, and never spread past 47 acres. Compared to modern wildfires, that size fire might not even immediately trigger the need for expanded resources. But as history shows, it is not necessarily the size of the fire that makes it most lethal.

2. Manage resources and the span of control

Second, when it comes to resources, more isn’t always better. When the Griffith Park fire started, there were thousands of men available to battle the blaze. But nearly all those men lacked firefighting knowledge and experience, and had only shovels as firefighting tools. Having a lot of untrained people running toward the fire just meant that more people were injured and killed as a result.

Additionally, there were serious issues with span of control during the event. Workers in the park were divided into 108 squads of 50-80 men each. Each squad had a foreman and a timekeeper. With that many people in each unit, it was impossible for any supervisor to even know exactly who was working that day, much less where they might be in relation to the fire. One witness to the event said when he arrived, he saw “thousands of men running around the fire, apparently leaderless.”

When professional firefighters arrived, they found an estimated 3,000 workers in a 40-acre fire area. The fire chief at the scene said his crews could not effectively fight the fire and ensure the welfare workers’ safety at the same time, largely because they had no way to control the workers’ actions. 

3. A lack of training and poor tactical choices can have deadly consequences

The third critical lesson was the importance of technical skills and knowledge when battling a fire of this type. When the fire blew up, many men followed their first instinct to run away from the blaze. This meant running directly downwind and into a canyon, which turned out to be a deadly decision. Others with better instincts or better luck were able to run perpendicular to the fire to a road and survive.

In addition, back fires ordered by foremen were much more destructive than helpful. These fires were apparently well intentioned but done without any technical knowledge of how to manage them effectively and safely. As a result, the fires were quickly caught by the wind and caused more than 300 workers in one area to be surrounded by flames. The Coroner's Inquest panel, comprised of nine firefighting experts, concluded that many of the dead were killed not by the original fire, but by back fires. 

Other tactical choices also led to casualties. The fire chief commented that it was a mistake to let anyone into the canyon itself, and yet the foremen flooded the canyons with workers, bringing them down narrow, twisting paths. Evacuation under such circumstances was destined to be chaotic, if not impossible. Most of the professional firefighters at the scene battled the blaze from higher ground and quickly brought it under control.

The tragedy in Griffith Park occurred over 80 years ago, but there are strong lessons from this fire that resonate today:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of even small fires.
  • Have trained and equipped resources available to respond immediately to such events and keep untrained people safely away.
  • Focus on accountability; know where people are, what they are doing and who is in charge at all times.
  • Don’t let people freelance or make decisions outside their scope of authority or expertise.  Pay attention to span of control.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t think it can’t happen to you. All states, all countries have lands, even within urban areas, that are susceptible to wildland fire risk. As the Griffith Park fire proved, even small fires within city parks can be deadly.

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