Remembering the 1990 College Hills Fire

Catherine Yesayan
Catherine Yesayan

Catherine Yesayan

BY CATHERINE YESAYAN

“June-Gloom” is a term I learned early on when we settled in the Los Angeles area where the month of June is, all too often, gloomy and cold.  Usually a June day starts with a drizzle or overcast that lasts until-mid day, while the temperature stays around 75F.  Call me weird, but this is the kind of weather I like for a summer day.

However on June 26, 1990 the weather turned in the opposite direction and the temperature reached an all-time record high of 112F.  The following day, June 27, my 10-year-old daughter, Tina, had invited her friends for a swimming party. However we canceled the party because of the heat spell. Little did we know that the decision was a true blessing. The heat was a few degrees less than the previous day, but still scorching at 109F.

On that day, in the morning, I went to my doctor’s appointment, afterwards, I did grocery shopping and when I drove onto our street I noticed that the dried overgrown brush at the foot of the hill looked extremely volatile.  It gave me a creepy feeling. I thought, “If someone puts a match to it, the whole thing will burn in an instant”

At the corner of our street there were three vacant lots that the builders were just starting to frame houses.  A picture is etched in my mind of the construction workers bending their heads backward and gulping water from Ice coolers.  I pitied them having to work in that heat.

I drove home. Since it was so hot I didn’t even put the perishables in the refrigerator. I just left everything on the counter and rushed to take a shower so I could cool off.  I was toweling off when I received a phone call from a friend who lived nearby.  I was trying to find an excuse to cut her short, because my groceries were still lying on the counter. At that moment I heard sirens. I asked her, “Do you hear the sirens?” And she said, “Yes there must be a huge fire – I can see the smoke from my window.” When I got closer to the window and looked out, I saw the smoke was right below us.  I shouted, “My Gosh, the fire is in our street, I need to hang up.” – That was a good excuse. And I hung up, even though she insisted on hearing more details…

Glendale's 1990 College Hills Fire

Glendale’s 1990 College Hills Fire

In the five years we had lived in that neighborhood, fire had broken out at the foot of the hill a few times. Each time the firefighters had put off the fire quickly.  After the fact, I had heard from the neighbors about the fire. This time my curiosity consumed me. I decided to drive down one street below our home to watch the spectacle. I told my daughter Tina to jump in the car and come with me. How stupid!

As soon I pulled out of the garage I saw the thick smoke and realized immediately that it was a mistake to drive down. Then I noticed that flickers of fire had reached the hill behind our house. Not until that moment did I sense the depth of what was happening. It was far more serious than I had thought. The fire had already leapfrogged from below to the upper hills. I hurriedly pulled into the garage, closed the garage-door and rushed to make a call to my husband whose office was a few blocks away. He said that he’d be home in a minute.

In the rush and confusion, I had little time to think about what to do. But I remembered that while in college, we were asked to write an essay about what would be the first thing you would grab in case a fire breaks out. I ran upstairs to get family photographs.

I hate to admit it but, for the last 10 years, since we had arrived in the United States, I had just collected all the family photos and the negatives in envelopes. They were not organized in albums. The photos were all stored in a big box and it was too heavy for me to carry them. So I pushed the box under the vanity, thinking it would be safe there.

Now, I hear from downstairs my Spanish housekeeper screaming, “Señora! Señora! Los bomberos están aquí. Debemos dejar.” Translation: (Mrs., Mrs., the firefighters are here, we must leave)

Not knowing what else to grab, I take my fur coat. Then I hear someone at the door.  I run downstairs with my fur coat on a coat-hanger. At the door there is a woman wearing a uniform, a dark blue skirt, a blue shirt and high heels with a walkie-talkie in her hand. She tells me, that my husband couldn’t make it home, because the street was blocked.” She says, “Take the kids, valuables, money and a bucket of ice water. Drive down Verdugo Rd., because the other side is blocked.”

Our home was situated on a hill in a development of 103 homes, built in the late 1960s.  You could access the community from two different sides. Later, I learned that when my husband had entered our street from the Glenoaks side to come to our rescue, right in front of him a house had exploded. He says, “Watching a house burning into pieces, in front of my eyes, was so scary. After all, it might have been our home.”  But fortunately our home was higher up on the hill and we had time to get out of the house

I always wondered who that woman in “high hills” could have been. How could she, in that pandemonium, find our home? Perhaps she was an administrator at the fire department and most probably she was driven in a car, because our streets were too steep to walk with high heels. In any case, my husband says that he felt so fortunate to find this woman officer and ask her to come to our door and tell us to just take the car and flee.

With my calculation, from the minute I had arrived home and had taken my shower, to the minute the woman showed up at our door, could not have exceeded more than 30 minutes. In that short period of time our neighborhood had become an inferno.

I asked Rosa, our housekeeper, who was muttering unceasingly, “Dios mio, Dios mio,” to take water and ice and we left. Rosa and my son Erik, who was five years old, sat in the backseat of the car and Tina in the front. As I pulled out of the garage, I noticed that the street was covered with crisscrossed water hoses.  A few firefighters tried to stop me from driving the car over the hoses, but I carefully rolled the car down the hill.  Rosa had put the water and the ice in a bowl and every time we crossed a hose, the water in the bowl spilled. I guess it is common to do all sorts of stupid things in an emergency situation.

While we were driving down the hill, I noticed a guy that had covered his mouth with a handkerchief and was running door-to-door to make sure that people were aware of the fire.

A few houses down, I saw a neighbor, putting their paintings in the car to save them. Their house got major fire damage but they saved the paintings. That’s all I remember while leaving the neighborhood.

Next, in my mind’s eye I see we are all gathered outside of my husband’s realty office, in a shopping center, a few blocks down from our house, at the corner of Chevy Chase and Broadway, watching the flames consuming the homes.

House burning during Glendale's 1990 College Hills Fire

House burning during Glendale’s 1990 College Hills Fire

The thick smoke was bellowing over the hills and flickers of fire were dancing on the slopes. We could see the houses burning to pieces. The helicopters were hovering and dropping huge buckets of water. It was surreal an extremely intense situation. The news said that the fire had traveled over the freeway to the neighboring hills.

My daughter, Meldia, who was 15 and attending summer school, joined us at my husband’s office. She started to cry, not as much about losing our home as about losing family pictures. I thought to go back home and maybe save the pictures, but the streets leading to our home were closed to cars.  We could only get there by walking, and that was out of the question. Our neighborhood was engulfed in heavy smoke and our street was too steep to walk in triple digit heat.

The fire was contained around 8pm and we were permitted to go home. Our home was saved. When I reached to our door, there were two firefighters who told me that we had only a little bit of roof damage.  Overwhelmed with emotion I teared up. I hugged both and thanked them for a selfless fight and saving our home. Indeed, they had done an incredible job. They were able, within few hours, to contain a fire that had reached almost to one hundred acres.

I entered our home and went right to the kitchen. The groceries that I had bought hours before, were still lying on the counter. The home was dark, muggy and smelled like smoke. There was no electricity. Although the Red Cross had set up sleeping facilities at Wilson Middle School and at the Civic Auditorium, we spent the night at a friend’s home. Fortunately we didn’t say goodbye to our home but many lost their homes and their belongings.

In our College Hills neighborhood 16 homes were burned to the ground. The fire then had hop-scotched over the freeway to the neighboring hill and had burned down another 50 homes. Fortunately there were no deaths.

This fire, which caused $40 million in damage and was the worst in the history of Glendale, had gained national importance. It turned out to be one of a string of arson fires set by John Orr, a Glendale Fire Captain and lead arson investigator.

On December 4, 1991, a year and a half after the Glendale fire, Orr was arrested in front of his home, at 7:30 a.m. on his way to work and seven years later on June 25, 1998, a jury in a California state court convicted him of first-degree murder.  Orr is currently serving a life sentence at Lompac Penitentiary in Lompoc, California.

Joseph Wambaugh has chronicled the chilling story of John Orr in a book entitled “Fire Lover,” and HBO has released a movie called Point of Origin. He is possibly one of the most destructive arsonists of the twentieth century.  The authorities say that after Orr was arrested, the number of fires near Glendale area decreased by over 90 percent. I can personally attest to that, because, no fire has broken-up since then, in College Hills.

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One Comment;

  1. Hratchik Nersissian said:

    Sad story which is written in a nice way, we must have our saving angels with us all the time, don’t we??? or just be lucky !
    Well done Catherine (y)

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