How bad was Griffith Park Fire? Once California’s deadliest, workers fought it with shovels

See parts of Butte County ravaged by the Camp Fire

Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. captures video of Paradise and other Butte County towns that have been ravaged by the Camp Fire.
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Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. captures video of Paradise and other Butte County towns that have been ravaged by the Camp Fire.

With its death toll reported at 88 the Camp Fire will almost certainly stand alone as the deadliest wildfire in California history, as more than 200 people reportedly remain missing from Paradise.

Its 88 fatalities are matched only by the Griffith Park Fire, a dry brush blaze in Los Angeles that killed dozens as hundreds tried to fight it.

What was the Griffith Park Fire? It happened 85 years ago in Los Angeles, and despite its death total, the circumstances are far different from those of the still-burning Camp Fire.

What happened?

On Oct. 3, 1933, thousands of workers were laboring to build roads and trails in the emerging Griffith Park area, as recorded in the Los Angeles Fire Department’s historical archives. Most of them made about 40 cents an hour in the midst of the Great Depression, or roughly $7.53 in today’s dollars. Some could probably see the famed Hollywood Sign, which was built on the hills there a decade earlier.

About 2:10 p.m. that day, workers spotted smoke rising from a hill. Flames spread into dry grass and trees along a canyon near the work site.

Untrained to fight fires, the workers battled the blaze anyway — most of them using shovels, the only somewhat-suitable tool they had for the job. Many fought for their lives, as several became entrapped by the flames, with some possible exit routes leading into even more intense flames. Others routes required climbing out of the canyon.

Eventually, the blaze was controlled, but not before dozens died trying to put it out.

How big was it?

In terms of acreage, not big at all.

The 47-acre Griffith Park Fire pales in comparison to recent wildfires, several of which have cracked the 100,000-acre mark.

Size doesn’t always translate to fatalities. At 113,000 acres, the Camp Fire hasn’t yet entered the top 20 largest in state history, but is on its way to potentially well exceeding all other California wildfires in death toll. And the state’s biggest fire by area, this year’s Mendocino Complex blaze, resulted in just one confirmed death across more than 450,000 acres.

It wasn’t as deadly as initially thought

Early death estimates were wildly inaccurate. The coroner put the Griffith Park death toll as high as 80 before correcting that total down to its final count, archived stories say.

Crude efforts began with Reconstruction Finance Corporation timekeepers — more than 100 of them — taking tallies of missing people, the historical archives say.

Later estimates from groups of victims’ family members and labor unions put the number of dead between 50 and 60, but neither could provide evidence to support these numbers (some news outlets wrote the labor unions off as communists, LAFD says).

In a bit of morbid irony, LAFD’s historical archive claims that nearly 350 workers were in their final day of work the day of the fire. With records less sophisticated in the 1930s, it’s unknown if some of those workers initially presumed dead had actually perished, or if they just went home.

Its cause was never determined

The Griffith Park Fire still bears an “unknown” designation in Cal Fire’s record books.

Historical records suggest witness accounts of some possible culprits, including reports of dry debris burning under an oak tree, as well as speculation that a stray cigarette or matchstick would have be a reasonable spark for the tragedy.

But no cause was ever officially recorded.

Other facts

Because those who fought it were workers or volunteers either directly ordered or asked to do so by foremen, the Griffith Park Fire technically constitutes one of the deadliest firefighter incidents ever recorded, according to lists published by PBS, Fox News and several other outlets over the years.

In fact, it remains the deadliest incident for firefighters over the past 100 years, with the exception of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Those attacks claimed 343 firefighters.

Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. captures video of Paradise and other Butte County towns that have been ravaged by the Camp Fire.

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