Ten Years After the Oakland Firestorm 

are we any better prepared today than we were on october 20, 1991?

James Williams says he has a hard time recollecting specific details of his experiences on October 20, 1991. He was a firefighter, right in the middle of the East Bay Hills conflagration that took 25 lives and more than 3,000 homes. What he does remember is that the experience was overwhelming. "What's strange is that I don't remember a whole lot about it," muses Williams, now a battalion chief with the Oakland Fire Department. He clearly remembers the sensation of intense, unrelenting heat -- no matter which way he turned, it was hot. "There was no relief," he says.

He'll never forget the aftermath, of course: entire blocks of homes, burned to their very foundations, looking more like the centers of giant bomb blasts than the remains of a fire. And he shudders when he talks about the people, including a colleague, James Riley, who died in the blaze. "That's something I still think about today."

Part of Williams' present job as the department's communications manager is to make sure that others don't forget the devastating firestorm, and he's working to plan events to commemorate its tenth anniversary. It's an important task, he says, because keeping memories alive is a big key to preventing another conflagration.

The firestorm actually started on Saturday the 19th when workers in a canyon just north of Highway 24 accidentally lit a small fire. The fire department responded, and thought it had everything put out, but left a crew overnight to keep watch and put out any "hot spots" that might cause problems. The next morning, what may have been as little as a single ember blew into a nearby tree. Fanned by 60-mph-plus winds, low humidity, and temperatures in the nineties, the blaze quickly spread, completely engulfing the ridgetop Hiller Highlands neighborhood.

Within hours the blaze had spread north into Berkeley and jumped across the freeway into Oakland's Upper Rockridge district. By Sunday evening the fire had nearly reached Montclair.

Before the fire was finally contained, firefighters had been brought from fifty departments around the state along with helicopters, air tankers, and other state-of-the-art equipment. This massive force encountered a number of problems -- Oakland's hydrant connections turned out not to match those of many other departments, for instance, and the department's radio communication system was frequently overwhelmed -- but in reality, once this fire got going, there was very little the firefighters could do. The blaze had become a true "firestorm," creating its own wind currents, which spread the flames rapidly in all directions at once.

It took two days to put the hills fire out, and by the time it was over, some 1,700 acres had burned. Whole neighborhoods had disappeared, leaving nothing but a few chimneys and crumbled foundations. Cars left in driveways were melted -- the tires, windows, upholstery, and even the steering wheels evaporated in the 2000-degree heat of the conflagration.

Gordon and Sue Piper remember the fire very well. Their Hiller Highlands home was among the first to go up, and they fled down Tunnel Road. "As we got to the light, the grove of eucalyptus went up right in front of us," Sue recalls. Pointing to some extremely tall utility towers in the distance, Gordon adds, "The flames were higher than those poles."

The Pipers' visceral memories lingered long after the flames had been extinguished. Their nine-year-old daughter ran out of the house clutching a single possession -- a bag filled with school supplies. For two years afterward, she couldn't put the sack down. No matter where she went, her mom says, "It went with her." The fire also changed their lives. "It made us community activists," she says.

The Pipers helped to build the Firestorm Memorial Garden on Hiller, which was dedicated in 1994, and they are working to raise funds for the nearby Gateway Exhibit Center, which they hope will educate people about the impact of the fire and steps that need to be taken to prevent another one. Sue is active with CORE (Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergencies), and edits a neighborhood newsletter that deals with fire-related issues. Gordon, in his own words, has "adopted" the corridor along Highway 24, organizing numerous cleanups, where neighbors bring their shovels, hedge trimmers, and weed whackers to try and get rid of potentially flammable undergrowth on vacant lots. The pair has also repeatedly lobbied the city to take better care of its own properties and to enforce existing ordinances that, for example, require keeping a thirty-foot-wide zone around buildings free of flammable vegetation. "It's almost like an obsession," he admits.

The danger of another fire comes from letting the undergrowth -- brush, weeds, and low-hanging branches -- build up beneath the trees. When this catches fire, it burns quickly. Once the flames climb the trees, a fire can spread rapidly from treetop to treetop and then become virtually impossible to stop.

Gordon Piper gestures toward a steep hillside where a stand of tall blue gum eucalyptus is growing. Until recently the ground beneath these trees had been covered with French broom and other highly flammable weeds. A developer planned to construct houses on an adjacent piece of property, and the Pipers and their neighbors lobbied the city planning commission to force the builder to clear the understory before the project could proceed. Today, the brush is gone, and the hillside is much less likely to become the source of another conflagration. Gordon Piper says he's filed numerous such complaints against both public and private landowners, in an effort to get them to clean up their properties.

Ironically, the city itself, which owns about eighteen hundred parcels of land in the hills area, has frequently been a target of criticism from the Pipers and other activists. One former city official described Oakland's vegetation management program as "like holding your rosary beads."

In 1993, the city established an assessment district, charging hills property owners a yearly tax for fire suppression programs, but four years later its renewal was voted down by property voters, leaving the city without the $1.8 million a year that the assessment district had raised. "It was a huge loss," says Henry Renteria, director of Oakland's Office of Emergency Services (OES).

At the time, city councilmembers vowed to revive the levy, but when they never took action -- beyond bringing in a ravenous herd of goats -- concerned people like Gordon and Sue Piper began getting creative in their efforts to keep the fire danger down, devoting countless weekends to hacking away at flammable flora. Finally this year the council seemed to make vegetation management a major priority: It put the fire department in charge of keeping city-owned lands in shape, and giving it a $1.7 million budget to get the job done.

Bob Knecht, president of the Shepherd Canyon Homeowners Association, thinks the council's action is a "hopeful sign," pointing out that the city also hired the California Conservation Corps to clear brush along Snake and Shepherd Canyon Roads this summer -- just in time, Knecht thinks. "I think the fuel load was probably as bad there as it was before the firestorm," he says. "The city seems to be doing more, which pleases us."

The fire department made a number of technical changes in the aftermath of the big fire. It has upgraded its radio hardware so that more channels are available in emergencies, and fire hydrant connections have all been standardized. There are also two new weather stations in the hills, which provide constant updates on wind, heat, and humidity conditions -- critical factors in predicting fire danger.

In 1999, the city opened a $7 million emergency center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Renteria says that in the event of another major fire, the building will become a central command post as well as a communications center. Sitting in front of one of the dozen computers in the center's "situation room," Renteria demonstrates how, with a few clicks, he could determine where fire engines were being deployed, the location of schools and other large public buildings, and updates on the spread of a fire. Renteria, who has been OES director since 1985, wishes the center had been around in 1991. "It would have helped us tremendously."

Still, neither citizens' groups nor government agencies can do everything needed to prevent another major fire. "It takes a public-private partnership to reduce the danger," opines Gordon Piper. "You can't put the blame on the fire department or the city -- it's all of our problems. If we want vegetation maintained on public property, we have to say we'll get out there with our weed eaters."

In fact, one of the biggest dangers is that, over time, people forget just how destructive a large fire or major earthquake can be. Memories fade, and new people who have never experienced a major disaster move into the area. Gordon Piper says that it has been "hard as heck to get a nickel" from some hills homeowners' associations for fire safety. "Their concerns seem to be views, views, and 49er football."

History shows just how shortsighted that attitude is. In our glorious Mediterranean climate, with its long, dry summers, fire is a natural part of the landscape, and big fires have burned in the East Bay hills on a regular basis. In 1923, a careless smoker started a blaze that took 584 Berkeley houses. In the '30s and '40s, more than 3,500 acres burned in a series of Oakland fires, including an arson blaze that charred 1,000 acres very near the spot where the 1991 firestorm started. On average, a fire consuming more than one thousand acres occurs every twenty years in the hills, says Sue Piper, adding that we're just about at the halfway point.

Hiller Highlands residents and the city will sponsor events on Sunday, October 21, to mark the firestorm. The Pipers hope that the commemorations will serve both as memorials and as inspirations. "Our goal is to get people to take responsibility," says Sue. "If we can motivate them to do that, then we are helping ourselves."

"You can't wait until the fire is coming over the hill," adds Gordon.

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