Bel Air's multi-million dollar mansions get no special treatment from California's wildfires

For older residents of the exclusive neighbourhood the latest emergency brings back memories of the famous fire of 1961

Elizabeth Segal
Los Angeles
Friday 08 December 2017 00:44 GMT
Firefighters have saved a number of paintings and other possessions in Bel Air
Firefighters have saved a number of paintings and other possessions in Bel Air (AP)

As wildfires rage against Southern California, even the exclusive Bel Air neighbourhood, a six-mile, gated enclave in the foothills of Los Angeles has been hit by the Skirball Fire - prompting the evacuation of 700 homes on some of the most expensive land in the US,

It is land originally set aside and gated in the 1920s by a local oil baron, but now home to many Hollywood celebrities and moguls. Media baron Rupert Murdoch’s $30-million Moraga Estate and working vineyard was damaged by one of the area fires. Another fire-proximate property is Beyonce and Jay-Z’s $135-million mansion, a 30,000 square-foot spread, said to house four swimming pools, a helipad, and bullet-proof windows. Other celebrities living in Bel Air’s cushy confines include Jennifer Aniston and Elon Musk.

Yet all those standing at the police barrier at the foot of Moraga Drive, were aware of the levelling nature of fire, no matter the cost of the property. Several sported face masks, as they stood anxiously waiting for news of their homes. Many fire crews and their trucks had gathered, ready to climb into the foothills on a moment’s notice to relieve crews who’d been battling the blazes for hours.

There have been images of firefighters over the last 48 hours removing artwork from luxury homes. But for David Gibson, a fire chief whose team had driven down from Contra Costa Country in Northern California overnight to help his LA brethren, the exclusive nature of the surroundings did not matter to him.

“For us, we treat ‘em all the same. Everybody’s possessions are important to us. Wherever the most need is at, we go,” he said.

Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Detective Kevin Reynolds suggested that several residents in the upper Moraga area - known as “behind the gates” - had actually chosen to not evacuate their properties, despite an order to do so by the City. “I don’t know their train of thought,” he said tersely, as he helped organise a line of evacuees who were being allowed to drive back to their homes briefly to collect medications.

For many older Bel Air residents, the evacuation evoked memories of the 1961 Bel Air Fire, one that scorched through 16,000 acres, and destroyed the homes of actors Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor. It was after that fire that new safety initiative were introduced, such as the banning of wood shingles for roofs.

Tom Lallas, a trial lawyer standing near his office at the foot of Moraga Drive, remembers that fire. “More than 500 homes burned. There were photographs of Ronald Reagan with a garden hose trying to protect his property”

“I doubt that there’s any home on Moraga that is less than $3 million, and behind the gates, most homes are in the $10-15 million range,” he added.

Rodrigo Maximo, a landscaper in his 20s, waited hopefully with his gardening truck to see if he could gain access to Moraga Drive to check on one of the properties he normally tended to. His clients, whom he insisted on not naming, were not there, but he said he had been in touch with them. “They were evacuated. They don’t know what their house looks like, if there is damage.” He added that it was a “nice, big property.”

Southern California bushfire rages on

“I appreciate them a lot, and have worked for them for 13 years. I want their stuff to be okay,” he said.

In a different vein, across the just-reopened 405 freeway - the city’s main north-south artery - perched the Jewish-heritage Skirball Cultural Center, as well as the world-famous Getty Center, The Center's $1.3-billion private art collection narrowly escaped the blazes that jumped the freeway in scattershot fashion on Wednesday.

“The Getty was designed and built to protect our collection from disasters like these major fires, including the placement of landscaping,” said Getty Vice President of Communications Ron Hartwig, his phones ringing off the hook in the background.

“We have sophisticated air filtration systems that keep smoke from invading the galleries, which are built in such a way as to protect our collections.”

The Getty houses Van Gogh’s Irises as well as paintings by Turner, Manet and Monet in its collection. "There’s wonderful sculpture, Lichensteins in our Decorative Arts, and many priceless photographs,” said the unflappable Mr Hartwig, who added that the Center continues to have no plans to move any artworks off-site. “We have a water reserve on-site here, it’s a well-protected building," he said. "Even our plantings are designed in such a way as to keep water content closer.”

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