The Griffith Park Fire of 1933 is considered the third deadliest firefighter tragedy in U.S. history (after the September 11 attacks and the Great Fire of 1910). On October 3, 1933, 29 men were reported killed as they tried to fight a wildfire that flared up in Griffith Park’s Mineral Wells Canyon. The men were among more than 3,700 workers recruited at 40 cents per hour (enough that year, after a year of full-time wages, to equal the value of a new home) who started the day doing brush clearance and construction projects in the park. Temperatures had reached 100°F by noon.
When a small brush fire ignited, sometime after 2 p.m., that afternoon, supervisors thought that, with so much manpower available, they could order or convince enough men (desperate to keep their jobs) to switch over to firefighting. However, with no adequate water supply available, the men had little more than shovels with which to fight flames. The workers and crew bosses were not trained firefighters. Although Los Angeles Fire Department crews arrived within a half hour, they were impeded by the throngs of untrained firefighting workers. To make matters worse, workers were dangerously being ordered by bosses into burning Mineral Wells Canyon and Dam Canyon. Suddenly, at about 3 p.m., winds that earlier gently blew down the canyons reversed and shifted the fire up the canyon against the men. Men scrambled to outrun the fast moving flames (moving at 20 miles per hour). Some were quickly overtaken and burned to death. In Dam Canyon, men found themselves surrounded by flames with no way to escape. Survivors described scenes and sounds of horror. By nightfall, after burning 47 acres of the park, the fire was finally brought under control by evening.
In the aftermath, it proved difficult to identify the actual number of victims. Project managers and timekeepers were found to be lackadaisical in their organization and recordkeeping (along with some alleged corruption). More than a month after the fire, the Los Angeles County District Attorney finally established the death toll at 29. Other, however, accusing authorities of trying to minimize the death toll, maintained the number to be as high as 58.
Until the Camp Fire of 2018 in Butte County, the Griffith Park Fire ranked as the deadliest fire in California history.
Read more at The Fire of ’33.