As the anniversary of the Oct. 20, 1991 Oakland-Berkeley hills fire approaches, area residents and firefighters watch the browning of vegetation around them and assess today’s fire danger.
The amount of vegetation that can fuel wildfires is as high as it was in 1991, said Carroll Williams, an adjunct professor in UC Berkeley’s Environmental Sciences Department and a Berkeley hills resident.
Still, the fire danger may be less because both cities’ fire departments are better prepared, others say.
The threat of fire generally increases as the hot weeks of September and October dry out vegetation, and as the Diablo winds – warm, dry easterly winds that reach speeds of more than 20 miles per hour – pick up. It was these winds which blew during the 1991 fire that claimed 25 lives and destroyed over 3,000 homes and apartments.
An abundance of Monterey pines, eucalyptus trees and dry brush, especially French broom – all highly flammable – provided the initial fuel for the 1991 fire, Williams said.
The growth has made a tremendous comeback in the wildland areas of the hills. “We’re approximately in the same place as 1991 as far as vegetation goes,” said Williams. “Monterey pine cones remain closed until they come in contact with fire. Then they open and spread seeds. This is how it has evolved to regenerate.”
Williams said the winter preceding the fire had an important effect on the fuel load.
“It had a substantial influence because the trees had a lot of above-ground dead material killed by the freeze. So when it was ignited, it burned fiercely,” he said.
Others downplay the significance of the drought. Scott Stephens, assistant professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, said the main factors are the highly flammable houses with a lot of vegetation close by.
Although vegetation has returned in wildland areas owned by state and local agencies, including the East Bay Municipal Utilities District, East Bay Regional Parks District, the University of California, and Oakland and Berkeley, less of this vegetation is growing close to homes since the 1991 fire, Stephens said.
According to environmental experts, fire officials and residents, state statutes specifying clearance distances around homes, inspections by local fire departments, and general awareness in residents have contributed to the improvement.
And citizen preparedness plays a role. In Berkeley, CERT – Citizens Emergency Response Training – provides classes in fire fighting and disaster first aid, taught by retired firefighters. In Oakland, CORE – Citizens of Oakland Responding to Emergencies – is receiving similar training.
Nevertheless, Stephan says the passage of time has affected residents’ and authorities’ willingness to consider fire safety.
“For a few years after the 1991 fire, there was a real discussion about moderating risks in the hill areas,” Stephens said. “But after four or five years, the discussion evaporated.”
Many residents say they are concerned that fire authorities are carrying out fewer safety inspections.
“For the first four years, Oakland kept on top of inspections and clearing away brush. Now they really don’t,” said Cathy Wong, an Oakland hills resident who lost her home and whose husband was badly burned in the 1991 fire.
The decline in inspections and attention to vegetation in Oakland and Berkeley is partly because funding for enhanced inspections evaporated. Voters in Oakland two years ago rejected a tax bill that provided increased funding for inspections. In Berkeley, the City Council decided not to put the tax on the ballot at all.
“We had an assessment district area right after the 1991 fire. People paid a special tax for inspections and vegetation removal,” said Lucky Thomas, Berkeley fire marshall. “That is now dissolved. There is no longer funding for it.”
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 218, which limited “the authority of local governments to impose taxes and property-related assessments, fees, and charges.” It required two-thirds of voters to approve special taxes such as the fire assessment district tax.
This meant that the tax on homes in the hills was no longer legal. After Proposition 218, Berkeley did an evaluation as to whether a ballot measure to reinstate the tax would pass, according to David Orth, Berkeley assistant fire chief. It was determined that it would not pass and so it was not placed on the ballot.
According to Ron Falstad, Berkeley assistant fire chief, inspections beyond routine ones – such as the clearing away of debris – have been dramatically scaled back due to the loss of funding.
Remnants of the inspection programs have been maintained through shuffling of resources, but the original frequency of the inspections no longer exists. If the Berkeley or Oakland fire departments find a homeowner in violation of state fire laws, they can clear away debris and bill residents.
The assessment districts “got voted down because people didn’t care anymore and because a lot of new people moved in,” said Carmen Guerra, an Oakland hills resident.
Such “new people” in the area are a cause for concern for some residents.
“New people often need to be convinced that there’s a big stake here in terms of vegetation removal,” Williams said.
Sachin Parate has owned his house in the Oakland hills for six months. He doesn’t see a problem. “I’m not concerned. As far as I understand a lot of the problems were logistical. Now there’s a (new) fire station at the top of the hill,” he said.
One major problem during the 1991 fire was the ability of fire departments to cope with such a blaze.
According to Stephens, Oakland and Berkeley were essentially urban fire departments with jurisdictions in wildland areas.
“Many of the firemen didn’t know where to start or what to do,” said Jason Carlson, an Oakland hills resident who, in 1991, was evacuated as the fire blazed. “I can’t say they were panicked. But they were definitely in a situation that they didn’t think they could handle.”
Now the Oakland and Berkeley fire departments say they’ve learned their lesson through extensive tactical and strategic training, updated equipment, and new communication standards.
“We’re a lot more prepared now,” said George Stevens, a battalion chief with the Oakland Fire Department. “We’ve had significant training on wildland fire fighting tactics. We’ve had drills with other jurisdictions. And we’re working together on radio communications.”
In 1991, fire departments from other cities had trouble helping in Oakland because their hoses were incompatible with fire hydrant hook-ups. According to Stevens, the problem has been remedied.
“We changed all hydrants to 21/2 inch outlets within four to six months of the 1991 fire,” he said.
Hills residents agree that the fire departments are better prepared. Guerra said that the fire department’s response to small brush fires has been swift and comprehensive. And the department now stays overnight after it has put out a blaze, rather than leaving the possibly smoldering embers, as was done in 1991.
And fire science professor Stephens added, “You now see much better, cleaner communication. Oakland and Berkeley now have some of the best expertise in the state.”