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Arizona fire makes some recall Griffith Park blaze that killed 29

July 1, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
The 19 firefighters killed in Arizona were highly trained in battling blazes, but that wasn't the case in Griffith Park during the deadliest wildland fire in U.S. history.

"You had completely untrained workers; their bosses weren't really trained in firefighting," said Mike Eberts, a Glendale Community College professor who wrote a book on Griffith Park.

Eberts says in October 1933, the park was full of 3,000 workers hired by the WPA, completing tasks like building stone walls and laying down pipes.

"It was the depth of the Great Depression. They were making 40 cents an hour," said Eberts.

When a fire broke out, workers headed deep into a canyon to fight it with their shovels. Then the flames intensified.

The county morgue didn't have enough room for all 29 lost. Protests erupted in the street with labor organizations claiming the workers were murdered and forced to fight a fire they weren't trained for.

"And then you have the Times, which at that time was very conservative, claiming it was a communist plot. I don't think it was either," said Eberts.

In 2004, trees were planted to honor the lives lost. Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge called it "one of the saddest moments in the city's history."

LaBonge said that in 2007 when another fire burned out of control in Griffith Park, lessons from the 1933 fire were applied. He said it took two days to put the fire out and only one house was scorched. The difference was professional firefighters and water drops.

But as we saw in Arizona, sometimes even the best experience and technology can be no match for a raging inferno. Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots based in Prescott, Ariz., were experienced and trained, but the fast-moving wildfire encircled them when the winds suddenly changed, forcing them to deploy emergency shelters, which they had never had to do on the job until Sunday.


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