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.
John Cetrino / EPA
But others said Wednesday’s fire was a disaster too far. Bianca Kaveh and her husband awoke to a “firewall” outside their window. “All I saw was orange – I didn’t even see sky,” Kaveh said. Her husband stayed behind when she evacuated, using a garden hose to help save their home.
That was heroic, as were the firefighters who Kaveh said appeared out of the dark, “like Superman, to save the day.” But Kaveh said she is ready to move. “I I can’t live here. I’m so traumatized,” she said. “I know fires happen, but they’re happening more and more, there’s no way I’m going to stay here anymore … I’m scared to live here.”
One other landmark, at least for locals, also made it through the first day of what had been named the Skirball Fire. That was media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s home and hillside winery, known as Moraga Bel Air.
The estate, which Murdoch reportedly bought in 2013 for $30 million, appeared to have lost a few of its grape vines and according to the owner, suffered some damage “to buildings in the upper vineyard.” But the sprawling home at the bottom of the hill remained unscathed. A helicopter made several water drops into the afternoon, while two fire engines waited at the bottom of the hill, outside the property’s main gate.
Murdoch thanked the first-responders for their quick work and sent word, in a statement, that he was thinking of his neighbors and saying “our thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time.”
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