OAKLAND — Ten years after the fire that ravaged the Oakland-Berkeley hills, once-charred slopes have blossomed anew with handsome houses looking over the San Francisco Bay. But some of the underbrush that fueled the furious blaze has come creeping back, too.
“Here we are 10 years down the road and we’re sort of halfway to the next big fire,” said Sue Piper, whose home was one of 3,000 destroyed by the fire that killed 25 people. “You can’t do much about the geography or the geology or the weather. The one thing people can do is prevention. If we don’t reduce the vegetation on a regular basis, we’re sitting ducks.”
On Oct. 20, 1991, Piper had just driven home after dropping off her 4-year-old twins at a birthday party when she noticed smoke curling in the sky. It got darker and darker and she began calling neighbors, trying to gauge the danger. One of them called her back: “The fire’s crested the hill. Get out now.”
Hustling her 9-year-old into her car, Piper backed out of her driveway and drove into a nightmare. Cars were jammed bumper-to-bumper on the one road out as flames raced behind and beside them.
Piper had the air conditioning on high, but the heat outside was so intense she had to lean into the middle of the car. Dutifully waiting at a red light, she saw a grove of eucalyptus trees explode — “BOOM, right in front of us.”
No time to obey traffic rules. She drove the wrong way down the street, looking for the first turn that would take her downhill — “I was just praying to God that we don’t run into the fire.”
Hours after the Pipers made it to safety, the hills glowed orange, doomed houses silhouetted black against the flames.
When the fire finally was out, stunned survivors returned to a world burned bare. Cars had melted; foundations had crumbled.
“It was like a nuclear holocaust,” recalled photographer Len Blau. Watching the World Trade Center towers buckle and fall under the Sept. 11 attacks reminded him of walking through those destroyed neighborhoods in Oakland.
“It’s different, but just seeing those images in New York, I really flashed back,” he said. “Just the personal feeling of seeing it and seeing the tragedy of other people’s lives.”
After the fire came the recriminations.
Officials were sharply criticized for their handling of the fire, which was a rekindling of a brushfire thought to have been extinguished the day before. Meanwhile, it was discovered that the fire department’s communication system had been overwhelmed and fire trucks from neighboring cities had been thwarted by Oakland’s nonstandard hydrant openings.
That has all changed, said Henry Renteria, director of the fire department’s emergency services department.
Firefighters now get forest fire training and have new equipment, including thermal imaging devices that can detect heat underground and portable hydrant systems. The city’s hydrants now have universal fittings. And new weather stations in the hills give the department early warning of “red flag” fire days.
But in keeping hillsides stripped of underbrush, “we’ve had a roller coaster affair,” admitted Renteria.
In 1993, the city established an assessment district, charging hills property owners a yearly tax for fire suppression programs. Four years later, that was voted down.
This year, the city put the fire department in charge of keeping city-owned lands in shape with a $1.7 million budget.
Residents say local officials aren’t doing enough to clear public lands. Renteria said the problem is that individuals aren’t clearing brush around their homes.
Still, Renteria doesn’t share the view that another disaster is inevitable.
“Since 1991, we’ve had several fires that have erupted within that same area. All of them have been contained and controlled. Ten years from today we should be even better prepared,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot from 1991.”
Fires have always been a fixture in the hills. In 1923, 584 homes burned and there have been smaller fires every decade since.
Architect Peter Scott stood on the roof of his Oakland hills home and saw 37 houses burn in the fire of 1970.
When the fire of 1991 hit, he and his wife were out of town. His 85-year-old mother, Frances, was at home.
Disabled by arthritis, she had around-the-clock help, but the day person had left to attend church. When she tried to return, she was stopped by police She and family members begged for help, but officials wrongly believed Scott’s mother already had been evacuated, Scott said.
Ten years later, his voice still trembles with frustration and rage as he talks about his mother’s death.
The fire turned Scott into an activist. He designed a new fire station for free and got involved with emergency-response training. He is vigilant about neighborhood disaster planning.
“The reason my mother died is our neighbors didn’t know each other,” he said bleakly.
Scott and his wife considered moving away from the hills “for about five minutes.” Instead, they rebuilt, moving back nine months to the day after the fire.
They were pulled by their love of the area, pushed by their desire to restore equilibrium for their children, driven by the need to “shake our fists at the city and say you can’t destroy us.”
They buried the Scott’s mother’s ashes beneath a magnolia tree in the backyard.
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