Idyllic Bel-Air has seen fires before and most still refuse to leave

Image: Bel Air WIldfire

Flames from a wildfire work their way down a slope behind Leo Baeck Temple in Sepulveda Pass on Dec. 6, 2017 in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles. Reed Saxon / AP

The biggest fire disaster in the area came in 1961, destroying more than 500 homes. That Bel-Air firestorm was notable for the celebrities — like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Burt Lancaster — who lost their homes and for prompting Los Angeles to toughen its fire code.

Brush clearance requirements were imposed around homes and wood shingle roofs, which burn like kindling in a fire, were banned. Fire officials said those improvements undoubtedly helped spare homes more than half a century later, in this week’s big burn.

Michel Ohayon, who has lived in the Bel-Air area for 25 years, said he awoke about 5:15 a.m. to the smell of smoke. He and his family packed some jewelry, pictures and memorabilia. The others left, while Ohayon stayed behind to help ensure that a friend’s home was safe.


Los Angeles threatened as wildfires spread, forcing thousands to evacuate

“We’re somewhat worried, but what can you do?” Ohayon said. “It’s life. We live in California… Some people live in Florida, they have hurricanes. We live here — earthquakes and sometimes this.”

Others said they were attracted to Bel-Air not just for the stunning weather, but for its laissez-faire vibe — not as urban as nearby Westwood, home of the UCLA campus, or quite as remote as Malibu, up the coast.

“Bel-Air is a very special part of the world,” said Fred, a 57-year-old, whose declined to give his last name and whose family moved to the neighborhood before he started elementary school. “There is a lot of sense of community, but we still have our elbow room and independence at the same time.”

The biggest headache before this week’s fire has been a recent spate of mansionization, or something even more extreme—mansions being turned into compounds. (A fire official quipped that it was hard to say if all the structures burned Wednesday were homes, since many pool houses and cabanas here are big enough to live in.)

Last summer, real estate developer Mohamed Hadid — father of supermodels Bella and Gigi Hadid — pleaded no contest to criminal charges tied to his construction of an illegal mega-mansion in Bel-Air. The city had not approved the size or height of the home, which some neighbors considered a blight on a community which abided big, but recoiled at colossal. Hadid had to stabilize the hillside underneath the massive home and pay fines and complete community service.

“People get away with what they can,” said Fred. “Mansions are being surrounded by monster developments and a lot of them are owned by some LLC. No one knows who the real owner is…maybe some foreign prince.”

Residents here concede the fires create anxious moments, but almost all said they can’t imagine living anywhere as sublime. Some homes have sweeping views of the lights of West Los Angeles. When the traffic is right, a local can be on the beach in Santa Monica in less than 10 minutes.

Image: Skirball fire burns in Bel-Air California

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