Living Too Close to the Edge: Remembering the Oakland Hills Firestorm on its 25th Anniversary

For several years in the 1990s, as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the Oakland side of the Bay — or the “East Bay,” as it is colloquially known.

California is by turns breathtakingly beautiful and suffocatingly crowded, serene and self-righteous, chaotic and bucolic.   After only weeks in residence, one can acquire a sense of living “on the edge,” only small steps from disaster.  Calamities in California are as dramatic as they are frequent.

Houses perched precariously in Santa Cruz or elsewhere on the coast occasionally tumble over the cliffs.

pacifica

Heavy rains lead to mud slides that in turn cause mansions in Marin County to toboggan downhill and collide with other houses.

houseslide

Forest fires scorch huge swaths of Southern California every summer.

forest_fire

Nearly every year (or so it seems) drought conditions lead to the forced rationing of water, because California’s outdated reservoirs and water supply system cannot support its burgeoning population.

drought

A burning fuel truck can destroy a stretch of elevated highway and cause traffic snarls for months.

highway

Major geographic faults running through the state’s population centers – most notably San Francisco and Los Angeles – wreak periodic mayhem and cast a shadow of potential calamity over every day in those metro areas.  (See my first-person account of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.)

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Even the less famous cracks in the earth, such as the East Bay’s Hayward Fault (which bisects the University of California’s football stadium and forced the university to build that structure in two separate sections), are expected to produce major quakes in the near future.

stadium

Much of California’s population, even in metro areas, lives in close proximity to canyons, ravines, arid grasslands, or woodlands.  It is on the interfaces between California’s human habitation and its wilderness, especially among the numerous steep hills, that the state’s disasters are most costly.

One such “interface” disaster occurred 25 years ago today, on the 20th of October, 1991.

It was a Sunday.  I lived in Berkeley at the time.  I remember noticing unusually strong winds rushing through the treetops and blasting away the clouds on that unseasonably warm day. I might even have thought, “This would be a terrible day for a fire,” although it is impossible for me to know now what is memory and what is hindsight.

Late morning, I was nestled in a papasan chair engaged in some mundane task — darning a sock? — when I noticed through a south facing window the sky had turned yellow.  Bizarre as that seemed, I did not pay it much heed.  Only after another quarter-hour or so, finally aware of the fire engines and emergency vehicles screaming southward past my house, did I step outside to see what was going on.

overview

Billowing over the steep hillsides east of the city of Oakland was a cloud of smoke the size of a small town.  A cacophony of sirens pierced the air.  The East Bay hills, home to numerous wooded residential areas, were burning out of control.

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The East Bay consists, essentially, of a very long hillside and mountain ridge that runs from Richmond in the north to Fremont and the Silicon Valley in the south, with Oakland and Berkeley roughly in the middle.  To the west is the San Francisco Bay.  From the shoreline, gently sloping flats extend eastward, gradually growing steeper and eventually merging with rugged foothills roughly six or seven miles inland.

Lower-income neighborhoods are situated in the flats.  Affluence of the cities’ residents correlates roughly with distance from the Bay, altitude of the neighborhood, and gradient of the local hills.  Many of the area’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and most of the largest houses, are located near the ridgeline and were on that October day most threatened by the ravenous blaze.

The East Bay fire actually started on October 19th, the night before the disaster.  Firefighters were called to a burning grassland high in the Oakland hills.  They believed (incorrectly, alas) that the flames had been quenched and the danger averted.

On the morning of the 20th, the grass fire flared up.  Southwesterly gusts up to 70 miles per hour spread the blaze rapidly from the prairie into adjacent woodlands.  Burning debris took flight on the winds, outpacing and overwhelming local firefighting crews.  Dense groves of Eucalyptus trees, whose oily wood burns at high temperature, crackled and exploded, flinging incendiary fragments onto nearby structures.  By midday, the conflagration had become a firestorm producing its own roaring winds.

conflagration

Crews from as far south as Bakersfield, as far north as the Oregon border, and as far east as Nevada fought the blaze as it spread from wood-shingled house to wood-shingled house in hillside neighborhoods.  Within the first hour, 790 structures had been destroyed.  At its peak, the 107-alarm fire consumed a house every 11 seconds.

house_1

Firefighters were hampered throughout the chaotic day by a variety of problems, some preventable.  The neighborhoods’ winding, hilly streets were difficult for firetrucks to navigate, especially in smoke-limited visibility.  Radio communication was difficult, because fire companies used different frequencies.  The blaze knocked out power to 17 pumping stations in Oakland, causing some firefighters to run out of water.  The Oakland hydrants’ hose outlets were of a non-standard size, making them incompatible with hoses from some of the assisting companies.  Many streets were clogged with parked cars, some blocking fire hydrants.

(Don’t ever park in front of a fire hydrant!)

hydrant

As my housemates and I alternated between watching TV coverage in horror and gazing out our own front windows, the blaze raged wildly through the late afternoon.  I packed a go-bag and eventually spent the night at a friend’s house downhill.

Only a lessening of the wind speed at about 5 p.m. permitted the crews to begin to attempt containment.  The fire was not declared fully under control until 8 a.m. on October 23.

claremont

My housemates and I were fortunate.  Located downhill and within urbanized south Berkeley, safely away from the flaming dense brush and vegetation, we avoided the fire.

Uphill of us was sheer devastation.  The blaze had consumed 1,520 acres of land and destroyed 2,843 single-family homes and 437 apartment and condominium units.

Twenty-five people were killed. One hundred sixty-three were injured.

In the weeks and months that followed, the devastated area was an eerie scar on the East Bay landscape.  Where once the slopes and canyons had been patched with greenery and dotted at night with street- and house-lights, the hillside was dull gray and perpetually dark.

hillside

Even many months later, a drive through the afflicted neighborhoods found street after street in which all that remained of a household was a chimney and possibly a burnt-out car.

chimneys

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house_and_car

(As a somewhat bizarre footnote, much the same area of the East Bay hills had burned in September of 1970.  Some families lost their homes in both 1970 and 1991.)

All the blighted neighborhoods have been rebuilt.  Modern homes have supplanted their gutted antecedents.  Trees, shrubs, and flowers have sprouted anew.

The replacement homes, finished in stucco or other fire-resistant siding, are safer than their predecessors, many of which were sheathed in highly flammable cedar shake shingles.

The Oakland and Berkeley fire departments have put in place protocols to ensure radio communication.  Oakland has built a new fire station in the hills and equipped all of its crews with improved wildfire fighting equipment.  Oakland also replaced its fire hydrants to ensure compatibility with standard hoses.

To this day, many residents of the East Bay (and elsewhere in California) continue to live on the interface with the wilderness.

Recent precautions and newly instituted safety measures notwithstanding, it is likely that the East Bay hills will burn again.

 

 

 

 

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