Oakland firestorm of 1991
The Oakland firestorm of 1991 was a large suburban conflagration that occurred on the hillsides of northern Oakland, California, and southeastern Berkeley in October 1991. The fire has also been called the Oakland hills firestorm or the East Bay Hills Fire. The fire ultimately killed 25 people and injured 150 others. The 1,520 acres (620 ha) destroyed, included 2,843 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion.
Origins of the fire
The fire started on Saturday, October 19, from an incompletely extinguished grass fire in the Berkeley Hills northeast of the intersection of California State Routes 24 and 13 (0.5 mi (0.8 km) north of the Caldecott Tunnel west portal). Firefighters fought the 5-acre (2.0 ha) fire on a steep hillside above 7151 Buckingham Blvd., and by Saturday night they thought everything was under control.
The fire re-ignited shortly before 11 a.m. on Sunday, October 20. It restarted as a brush fire and rapidly spread southwest driven by wind gusts up to 65 mi (100 km) per hour. It quickly overwhelmed local and regional firefighting resources. By 11:30 a.m., the fire had spread to the nearby Parkwoods Apartments located next to the Caldecott Tunnel. Shortly before noon the fire had been blown up to the top of Hiller Highlands to the west from where it began its sweep down into the Hiller Highlands development and the southern hills of Berkeley. The fire tossed embers from the burning houses and vegetation into the air as it went. These embers were swept away by the torrid winds only to float back to earth to start the blaze in new locations. Half an hour later, these embers enabled the fire to jump across both Highway 24, an eight-lane freeway, and Highway 13, a four-lane freeway, eventually igniting hundreds of houses in the Forest Park neighborhood on the northwest edge of the Montclair district and in the upper Rockridge neighborhood. The fire eventually touched the edge of Piedmont, burning some municipal property, but the buildings and houses were spared.
The hot, dry northeasterly winds, dubbed as "Diablo winds," (in reference to the Diablo mountain range, Diablo Valley, and surrounding geography bearing the name), periodically occur during the early fall season, similar to the Santa Ana winds in Southern California, and have been the cause of numerous devastating fires. The fire began generating its own wind, the defining characteristic of a firestorm. The superheated fire-driven winds combined with warmer, dryer air east of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills, and interacted with the ambient cooler, moister Bay/Coastal air to create erratic, dangerous gusts, which helped produce numerous rotational vortices. All of these combined to help spread the fire, tossing embers in all directions. The wind was so strong that it also blew debris across the bay into San Francisco. Ash fell onto the field of Candlestick Park where the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers were playing during that afternoon. The CBS telecast of the game also showed live footage of the fire. As with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake two years earlier, the blimp shots from the national sports media provided many people with first word of the disaster.
By mid-afternoon, the wind had slowed and shifted to the west, driving the fire to the southeast. At about 9 p.m., the wind abruptly stopped, giving firefighters a chance to contain the fire.
Firefighting response and difficulties
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Assistance from firefighting agencies as far north as the Oregon state line, as far south as Bakersfield and as far east as the Nevada state line were quickly mobilized and sent to the fire zone. The California Department of Forestry (CDF) dispatched several air tankers, which doused the fire with tons of fire retardant all day long. The CDF established a base at the Naval Air Station in Alameda. Additionally, the Naval Air Station itself sent its own firefighting equipment and material to the scene of the fire. The next morning, before full control had been gained, satellite photographs, especially infrared (heat-sensing) photographs, were provided with the help of NASA Ames Research Center's Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART) to aid firefighters in plotting the extent of the fire and spotting hidden hot spots.
In terms of alarm assignments, it was the equivalent of a 107-alarm fire.
For a variety of reasons, the firefighting teams were initially overwhelmed by the firestorm. The winds were gusting at times in excess of 70 mph (110 km/h), creating erratic and extreme fire behavior. Flames took out power lines to seventeen pumping stations in the Oakland water system. Outside fire teams faced various equipment compatibility issues such as hydrants having the wrong size outlets for the hoses used by neighboring counties. Oakland was also not able to communicate with many mutual aid resources due to antiquated equipment and lack of access to statewide radio frequencies brought on by the budget restrictions in the preceding years. In some areas, firefighters simply ran out of water, as there was no power to refill the emptied reservoirs. Additionally, many narrow, winding roads in the area were crowded with parked cars, including many in front of fire hydrants; this prevented fire trucks and ambulances from getting to certain areas and connecting fire hoses. The general situation was one of chaos and panic among residents in the area.
The most important factor was the rapid spread of the wind-driven fire. Before most of the firefighting resources could be brought to the scene, the fire had established a large perimeter. At the fire's peak, it destroyed one house every 11 seconds. By the first hour, the fire had destroyed nearly 790 structures. In addition to the winds and the heat, an important factor in the rapid spread of the fire was that it started in an area that was at an interface between developed and undeveloped land. Many of the first dwellings to burn were surrounded by thick, dry vegetation. In addition, the nearby undeveloped land had even more dry brush.
The same conditions contributed to a major conflagration nearby in the 1923 Berkeley fire and a more limited conflagration in the same area on September 22, 1970, again under similar conditions. A smaller fire also started in Wildcat Canyon on December 10, 1980.
As night descended, the firestorm threatened to destroy the historic Claremont Resort hotel where the media had gathered to report on the fire. Television crews trained their cameras on the dark hill immediately behind the hotel and millions watched as the fire slowly marched house by house toward the evacuated hotel. The fire was stopped shortly before it reached the hotel.
By 5 p.m. the winds died down, giving firefighters a chance control the blaze, though full containment would not be achieved until October 22. As many as 400 engine companies, 1500 personnel and 250 agencies worked to put out the fire.
By Wednesday October 23, at 8 a.m. the fire was declared under control, almost 72 hours after it started.
Newly rebuilt houses have dramatically changed the architectural character of the affected region. Only one business was destroyed during the fire, the Bentley School on Hiller Drive.
Several nonprofit groups arose after the fire. One, the Hills Emergency Forum, was created by local fire agencies to build consensus on fire safety standards and codes, offer multi-jurisdictional training, and coordinate fuel reduction strategies, as well as other goals. At least two citizen groups also arose, the North Hills Phoenix Association and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy to participate in policy decisions and provide educational and stewardship services at the wildland–urban interface. The fire validated that the efforts undertaken by CARD (Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters) after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, to build a nonprofit preparedness infrastructure, were key to addressing the needs of vulnerable communities.
In response to issues about firefighting equipment during the disaster, Oakland city firefighters now carry more extensive wildland firefighting gear and fire shelters. Prior to and during this firestorm, when this was not standard equipment, firefighters were sometimes forced to don turn-outs which greatly hampered their ability to move quickly and stay cooler during a wildland fire.
Fire hydrants now have the industry standard 4½ and 2½ inch outlets throughout the city. The lack of a standard in 1991 caused numerous difficulties for various agencies who attempted to connect to non-standard hydrants, even though the 3-inch (76 mm) outlets previously used by Oakland were considerably more efficient. Water cisterns and a new hills fire station were added, and radio communications were improved. However, Berkeley firefighters still use different radio frequencies than Oakland, though they carry extra radios that allow them to communicate using the Oakland 800 megahertz system.
On June 12, 2008, a brush fire ignited in almost the exact location of the starting point of the 1991 fire, but owing to a rapid response, as well as the preventive measures implemented after the 1991 disaster, and the lack of significant winds, the fire was confined to 2 acres (0.81 ha) with no damage to any structures and was extinguished within 90 minutes.
In 2015, a $4 million federal grant to prevent fires in the Oakland hills ignited debate over whether to cut down trees in the region. The city and its fire department say clearing young eucalyptus trees and other non-native plants would deter another deadly firestorm like the one that whipped through the hills in 1991.
One of the victims who lost their houses in the 1991 disaster was game designer Will Wright, who lived a few blocks away from where the fire started. He used his experience of rebuilding his life as basis for the concept of the computer game The Sims.
In popular culture
- This disaster was also included as one of several different disaster scenarios in the 1993 video game SimCity 2000.
- The story of the Oakland fire is a major plot element of the children's book "Tikvah Means Hope", by Patricia Polacco. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1994. ISBN 0-385-32059-0
- The 1993 TV movie Firestorm: 72 Hours in Oakland was based on the Oakland hills fire. It incorporated actual Oakland fire footage as well as audio from radio transmissions made by the fire crews on the scene.
- The book "Almost Home: America's Love-Hate Relationship with Community" contained a chapter of critical assessment of the social aftermath of the fire. It highlighted how the selfish and individualistic desires by some of the victims of the fire overwhelmed any preliminary voice of community togetherness, including fraudulent and greedy practices towards charity and insurance claims.
- The fire is a theme in author Maxine Hong Kingston's novel The Fifth Book of Peace.
- Captain Donald R. Parker (January 1992). Oakland Office of Fire Services, ed. "The Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire: An Overview". San Francisco Fire Department : Fire Commission.
Deaths 25, Total Living Units Destroyed 3276, Estimated Dollar Fire Loss $1,537,000,000
- "15th Anniversary of the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire". Air Worldwide. October 10, 2006. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
- "Fire Burns Hundres of Homes in Oakland Hills; 10 Killed". Associated Press. October 25, 1991. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
- New York Times — 22 October 1991 — "Fire in Oakland Ranks as Worst In State History"
- The Oakland Hills Fire November 3, 1999
- PubMed — February 1993 — "Immediate health effects of an urban wildfire"
- NIST — March 1997 — "Fire-Induced Winds in the 20 October 1991 Oakland Hills Fire"
- San Francisco Chronicle — 3 November 1999 — "The Oakland Hills Fire" & narrated video
- San Francisco Chronicle — 22 October 2001 — "Out of the ashes, a community reborn"
- Oakland City Council report — 2004
- San Francisco Chronicle, June 13, 2008, p.B5
- Seabrook, John (November 6, 2006). "Game Master: Will Wright changed the concept of video games with the Sims. Can he do it again with Spore?". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
- "Inspired to make The Sims after losing a home". Berkeleyside. October 17, 2011. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
- Internet Movie Database: Firestorm: 72 Hours in Oakland (1993) TV movie
- Almost Home
- NASA Ames Research Center — Disaster Assistance & Rescue Team (DART) response
- Museum of the City of SF — San Francisco Fire Department Responses to the Oakland Fire
- The East Bay Hills Fire — Multi-Agency Review of the October 1991 Fire in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills — California Office of Emergency Services, February 27, 1992
- The East Bay Hills Fire: Oakland-Berkeley, California, U.S. Fire Administration, Technical Report Series. USFA-TR-060, October 1991. FEMA.
- NASA Aerial Photo of Fire
- City of Oakland CORE Program
- Oakland Firestorm Mural
- CBS — video of 1991 Oakland Hills Fire
- Pictures of the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm
- Gallery of Oakland Hills fire of 1991
- Images from Oakland fire 1991