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.
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