Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fire on the mountain

PAUL MARTIN'S comment about preserving archives from fire is timely. This November 6 we'll mark the 50th anniversary of the Bel Air Fire.

Nothing makes a statement about the devastation more than this sad snapshot of the shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux on the eastern edge of the Chalon Campus. The shrine was built in 1946 and dedicated on October 3 that year, the feast day of the beloved Carmelite saint known as the Little Flower.

She watched over the Circle for the next 15 years until that Monday of midterms week, when a spark from a construction site turned into a raging orange hell of wind and flame. After the fire did the unexpected and jumped the new 405 freeway in the Sepulveda Pass, the Mount was directly in its path.

The fire raced up the eastern canyon, turning a row of eucalyptus trees at the edge of campus into a wall of torches. Windborne cinders ignited the wooden eaves of Rossiter Hall and St. Therese's shrine as it headed south along the canyon wall.

Only Rossiter's walls were left standing. The fire mostly skipped St. Joseph Hall but renewed its fury on the Carondelets' House of Studies (now Carondelet Center), burning off portions of the pantiled roofs as it continued into the residential streets below. The fire also blew west, destroying the Mount Bowl, a beautiful outdoor amphitheater, and the Marian Hall of Fine Arts, which housed the music and art departments with all their instruments and equipment. At one point, the Chalon Campus was almost completely surrounded by fire. By all accounts, there was a lot of heroism in saving the campus.

Remarkably, the College was closed only one day, thanks to cleanup efforts by scores of students, faculty, staff and volunteers. St. Therese got a new shrine the following spring. Funds were raised, buildings rebuilt and one of the biggest disasters in California history faded into memory.

Could it happen again? Of course. In fact, the Bel Air Fire of 1961 was actually the second or third time the College was in imminent danger of destruction by brush fire, going right back to the beginning in the 1930s. The threat goes with being the last outpost before the chaparral begins. It goes with Chalon's spectacular location.

Yes, I worry about this room full of paper. I'm marking a little anniversary of my own this week. Two years ago, a brush crew from the Getty Center ignited the chaparral east of the campus. Returning from a trip to Doheny, I saw the fire as I drove up the hill. I raced up Bundy, hoping to get at least a few things out of the Archives before the campus was evacuated. But I was turned away at the gate.

Fortunately, it was a windless day, and fire crews were able to stop the flames at the ridgeline. The College Archives was safe.

But as 1961 showed us, it doesn't always work out that way. Archives preservation is a millennia-old story of almost complete loss, and all I have to do is smell a hint of smoke on the breeze to be reminded. St. Therese, pray for us.

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