Remembering the Oakland Firestorm

Thousands of homes and 25 lives were lost.

Thursday, Oct 20, 2011  |  Updated 7:50 PM PDT
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NBC Bay Area's Jodi Hernandez has the story of one man who gave his life to protect others in the devastating Oakland Hills fire, 20 years ago.

NBC Bay Area's Jodi Hernandez has the story of one man who gave his life to protect others in the devastating Oakland Hills fire, 20 years ago.

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Every two decades or so, there has been a major wildfire in the  hills above Oakland and Berkeley, where wildland open spaces interface with  densely populated urban neighborhoods.
    Twenty years ago today, a blaze was sparked in those hills that  grew into an inferno that many Bay Area residents will never forget.

    The 1991 East Bay Hills Fire killed 25 people, injured 52 others,  and destroyed 3,354 single-family homes and 456 apartment units. At the time,  it was the most destructive fire in state history.     Landmarks disappeared, along with familiarity and a sense of  security. Some 10,000 people were left homeless, and damage exceeded $1.5  billion.
    In 1970, according to a city of Oakland history of fires in the  area, a firestorm caused by an arson fire produced heat so intense that homes  exploded before the fire actually reached them. The blaze destroyed 37 homes  and damaged 21 others.
    Decades earlier, in 1946, flames powered by dry winds raced across  the sheer-walled canyon near Oakland's Buckingham Boulevard and Norfolk Road  -- blocks from where the 1991 fire erupted -- turning trees into a fiery  canopy.
    In 1923, about 600 homes were destroyed in Berkeley when 130 acres  burned in an area north of the University of California at Berkeley campus.
    Two decades after the East Bay Hills Fire, changes have been made  to improve the odds that the next fire will not cause so much destruction.
    Oakland and Berkeley have new fire stations in the hills, and  residents are required to maintain vegetation around their homes.  Firefighters in Oakland now have better equipment for fighting wildland  fires, and practice working with nearby fire departments once a year.
    One survivor of the 1991 firestorm, who provided testimony for a  civil grand jury investigation of the fire, said the city has made  substantial improvements to reduce the risk of another fire disaster but that  there are still unresolved issues.
    Peter Scott, now 77, lost his mother in the fire when she was  trapped in his family's Alvarado Road home as it burned down.
    He said help didn't arrive as quickly as it could have, in part  because the fire department's communications system was overwhelmed.
    "When our house burned, there were trucks loaded with water lined  up on the freeway," he said.
    He also noted that there were 17 trucks parked near Claremont  Avenue, about a quarter-mile away, as firefighters awaited instructions.
   

    Saturday Oct. 19, 1991, was a warm, clear, dry and windless day in  the Oakland Hills.
    Shortly after noon, a brush fire was reported on a hillside above  7151 Buckingham Blvd., a street off of Tunnel Road that snakes in switchbacks  up and over Temescal Canyon and the west entrance to the Caldecott Tunnel.
    Firefighters arrived at the hillside, which was covered mostly by  grass with some brush and a few trees, as the flames were spreading rapidly  up the hill.
    According to a U.S. Fire Administration report on the disaster,  the fire grew from a one-alarm blaze to a five-alarm fire one in 36 minutes,  with firefighters responding from Oakland, Berkeley and the East Bay Regional  Park District.
    As the blaze threatened to spread into Cal Fire's jurisdiction,  the state agency dispatched units, including two helicopters, which doused  the fire with water, stopping its spread.
    It was declared under control at 1:39 p.m., but crews remained on  scene for several hours to complete overhaul of the fire, which was  complicated by the steep terrain, according to the federal report.
    The grass fire consumed two acres of land but no structures  burned.
    The last fire crews left the scene about six and a half hours  after the blaze started, although crews returned during the night to check  for hot spots. They did not notice any smoke or flames.
    Years of drought and five rainless months had left the hillside  parched, and a deep freeze from the previous winter resulted in an abundance  of dry, easily combustible vegetation, according to the federal report.
    Oakland fire officials said at the time that the lack of wind had  helped them control the fire.
    The next day, Diablo winds -- exceptionally dry air blowing over  the mountains toward the coast, similar to Southern California's Santa Ana  winds -- began moving through the hills.
    A battalion chief who had worked the brush fire noticed the shift  in conditions and notified the on-duty assistant chief, who called two engine  companies to check for hot spots at the top of the hill.
    The wetted ash, however, had formed a crust over the embers, which  remained hidden from view. When the crust eventually cracked, it would be  exposed to a fresh supply of oxygen that would quickly create a roaring fire.
    When the assistant chief arrived to survey the scene at about 9:10  a.m., hot spots were already flaring up on the hillside near the previous  day's burn, fanned by the erratic, dry gusts.
    A third engine company was dispatched to respond.
    The flare-ups appeared to have been brought under control by 9:45  a.m., and, according to the federal report, the assistant chief shuffled  resources so that two battalions could patrol the hillsides because of the  extreme fire danger, which he called "the most critical fire conditions in  five years."
    Crews from Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District, which  had left equipment at the site overnight and returned to retrieve it, picked  through the site with hand tools to weed out hot spots buried beneath the  surface.
    By 10:41, after controlling several other flare-ups, one Oakland  engine company remained at the scene with the parks district crew.
    An Oakland firefighter trekked up the burned hillside with a  five-gallon pack, spraying any visible wisps of smoke. Under the weight of  the firefighter and his boots, the crust formed by the wetted ash broke, and  the wind blew embers onto the parched brush.
    The wind grew fierce, and the flames began to spread.
    Four Oakland fire engines and a battalion chief were called to the  scene at 10:58 a.m.
    Six minutes later, the fire, which had grown to three alarms,  raged out of control, according to the federal report. Smoke was visible from  miles away.
    By 11:15 a.m., a fourth alarm was added as the fire exceeded the  size of the previous day's burn.
    The steep, narrow roads hampered the ability of the large  firefighting vehicles to quickly maneuver while the winds split the fire into  two fronts moving toward homes.
    A strong headwind slowed the response of a Cal Fire helicopter  unit dispatched from Morgan Hill, nearly doubling its 15- to 20-minute flight  time to the scene.
    Radio communications were jammed with messages from teams deployed  above and below the fire, and phones in the fire department's communications  center rang continuously as more people reported the blaze and called asking  whether they should evacuate.
    But things were about to get worse. By 11:30 a.m., several homes  were engulfed in flames and crews had to abandon their posts as the fire  leapt across roads and roared in all directions. The smoke was so thick that  a commanding officer stationed at the bottom of the hill near Highway 24  could no longer see the blaze or give instructions on how to attack it.
    As the fire grew, power lines fell and poles burned, the  California Highway Patrol closed the Caldecott Tunnel, and five strike teams  were called to a spot half a mile ahead of the fire at Tunnel Road and Hiller  Road, which is one of the hillside's only wide access roads.
    At 11:35 a.m., police were asked to send as many officers as  possible to assist with evacuations, but the narrow streets were jammed with  confused fleeing residents.
    Ten minutes later, many roads also became blocked by flames. The  fire swept downhill, destroying the Parkwood Aparments, which consisted of  three- and four-story buildings tucked below Tunnel Road just north of the  Caldecott Tunnel entrance.
    At that point, fighting the fire took a backseat to saving lives  until help arrived from outside agencies.
    The wind carried embers ahead of the rapidly moving fire, and  emergency responders could not move quickly enough to rescue those trapped in  their homes or on the blocked streets.
    Some -- including Oakland police Officer John Grubensky and  Oakland fire Battalion Chief James Riley -- died in the streets trying to  outrun the fire, according to the federal report.
    It was only eight hours later, at about 7:30 p.m., that the winds  finally died down. By that time, the fire had jumped both Highway 24 and  Highway 13, erasing the Hiller Highlands neighborhood, the Parkwood  Apartments, swaths of Oakland's Forest Park neighborhood and the northern  Rockridge District west of Lake Temescal as well as parts of Berkeley near  Tunnel Road.
    More than 5,000 people were evacuated from Oakland, Berkeley,  Piedmont and the University of California at Berkeley campus.
    Firefighters from hundreds of miles away were called in to relieve  exhausted firefighters who had been attacking the blaze for almost seven  hours.
    The battle continued into the night, and when the sun rose Monday  morning, Oct. 21, 1991, daylight revealed smoking ruins. By Tuesday, the fire  was finally contained. Few structures remained intact in the 2 square miles  charred by the firestorm.
   

   
    Peter Scott, the Alvarado Road resident, said the city and  community are more prepared now than they were 20 years ago, but that more  needs to be done.
    "I think that we have a good chance of beating other fires in the  future," Scott said. "We can prevent it and put it out with the improvements  that have been made."
    Scott, an architect, helped design a new fire station on Amito  Drive.
    During the 1991 fire, 800 structures burned in the first hour, and  more than 300 burned per hour for the next seven hours. When the inferno was  at its most intense, one home was consumed every 11 seconds, according to the  federal report.
    Scott said vegetation close to homes, as well as crowded narrow  streets, exposed utilities and an inadequate water system, are all  vulnerabilities. All were identified as problems in a 2006 citizens' review  by an Oakland Hills community association.
    Scott said those issues and others have yet to be resolved.
    He said roadways through the neighborhoods remain problematic  because they are still narrow and crowded with cars. Sometimes it is even  hard for regular traffic to navigate the streets, he said.
    Of the 25 people who perished in the fire, 24 people died on the  narrow roads, where traffic was stopped because of panic-induced collisions.
    "We ought to take a hint from that and establish dedicated  evacuation routes where on red flag days there is no parking allowed," he  said. Year-round parking restrictions could also help clear room for  emergency vehicles, he said.
    Now that two decades have passed and the communities have rebuilt,  turnover in homeownership in the area means that many of the current  residents did not witness the fire.
    Scott said he and his wife, because they were the first to rebuild  in their neighborhood, became stewards of their community and leaders in  pushing for improvements to reduce the risk of another fire disaster.
    "In an emergency like that, you really have to depend on the  neighborhood that you're in," Scott said.
    Sue Piper, special assistant to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, is also a  survivor of the fire and agreed that too few current residents are aware of  the devastation and ensuing community transformation.
    Piper encouraged people to attend this Saturday's Family  Prevention Fair, which will provide practical information about disaster  preparedness and is scheduled to take place from noon to 4 p.m. at the north  entrance to Lake Temescal.
    "If we don't take action on the lessons learned, then all the  commemorating is for naught," Piper wrote in an email.
 

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