Oakland hills fire anniversary: New threat 'needs to be in people's heads'
OAKLAND — When the smell of smoke is in the air, Pauly Langguth slips into a routine: She turns on TV news and listens for the blare of fire engines. The 76-year-old can't sleep until she has pinpointed the source.
"I'll go out on the balcony and sniff," she said.
Even the faintest whiff can trigger painful memories of Oct. 20, 1991, the day a catastrophic fire tore through the Oakland hills above the Caldecott Tunnel, killing 25 people in one of the nation's deadliest urban wildfires. The fast-moving inferno, fueled by strong hot winds from the east, jumped two freeways, burned 1,500 acres and incinerated nearly 3,500 homes in Oakland and Berkeley before it was done.
Hundreds of structures on the northern flank of Temescal Canyon burned in the first hour, leaving frantic residents little time to escape and many no time to save treasured possessions. Langguth's three-story townhouse in Hiller Highlands was destroyed; she and her husband rebuilt.
Twenty-five years later, the memories linger for those who lived there, lost so much, or watched helplessly as the hills burned. As on previous anniversaries, some worry that the blaze's devastating impact is lost on the increasing number of new residents, who fire officials say are more likely to be slow in clearing brush and creating defensible space to protect their homes.
And on this anniversary, a new problem has emerged. The state's historic drought has dried vegetation that fuels wildland fires, extending the typical fire season to a yearlong worry.
"Right now, there's a fire burning in Emerald Bay," Oakland Fire Department Deputy Chief Mark Hoffmann, who fought the 1991 blaze, said recently. "We are talking Lake Tahoe during a rainstorm. They were still fighting it. We are getting stuff that we never had before breaking out. That needs to be in people's heads."
Historically, a destructive fire has ignited in the East Bay hills every 20 to 30 years. In 1970, a blaze in the same area destroyed 38 homes, though there were fewer structures there in those days. But in 1991, the conditions were a recipe for disaster.On that warm Sunday morning, northeast Diablo winds stoked smoldering embers from a grass fire on Buckingham Boulevard the previous day, igniting duff and fallen pine needles and sending sparks flying. They landed in nearby trees, which exploded and showered onto roofs. The fire was spreading in multiple directions before firefighters who had earlier returned to the site to check on hot spots could control the blaze.
Driven by the winds, swirling pockets of fire engulfed 790 homes in one hour. Overwhelmed communications systems meant residents were often on their own as they scrambled to find a way to get out amid thick, choking smoke and flying embers. Cars jammed some narrow roads and were abandoned. Fire and emergency crews that responded from agencies all over the Bay Area were also frequently forced to flee from advancing walls of flame.
Most were able to escape. But 25 people, including Oakland fire Battalion Chief James Riley and Oakland police Officer John Grubensky, who were assisting people trying to evacuate on foot, perished in the early hours of the fire. The inferno was headed farther into Montclair and Rockridge districts when the wind finally shifted and lessened in the evening.
Oakland police Officer E. "Gino" Guerrero described the horror of driving through the flames after helping a man to his mother's home; it turned out she wasn't there. At the time, he knew Grubensky, his friend and fellow officer, had died.
"We were trapped," Guerrero wrote in this newspaper five years ago. "I was more scared of that wall of fire than I had been in a past shootout and two ambushes. I thought I was going to die."
Gary Plotner, 76, and his wife, Randi Plotner, remember loading up their car as the winds whipped the fire closer to them and heading to a friend's home in Alameda. "We thought it was gone," Gary Plotner said. The next morning, to his amazement, his home on Alvarado Road was still there. It was a close call — fewer than 50 yards away cars were melted from the 2,000-degree heat, and a home 100 yards away was scorched.
"We were lucky in that sense," he said. "We won the lottery that day."
In the aftermath of the fire, the Plotners and other residents came together to form neighborhood groups to educate, train and prepare for a future disaster.
Much has changed in 25 years. Fire officials who admitted they had little wildfire training have since armed themselves with tools to battle flames on the twisting, hillside roads and steep canyons. Dangerous vegetation has been trimmed or cleared. Oakland and Berkeley are enforcing new building codes in fire hazard zones. New fire stations were built in the hills; infrastructure that caused hydrants and water tanks to run dry has been replaced; utilities have been relocated underground.
Still, danger lurks.
Fire now threatens California year-round. In the fifth year of a historic drought, fires are burning hotter and quicker, modern-day versions of the Oakland firestorm. Many recent fires have ignited on steep inaccessible terrain, not unlike the hills above Oakland and Berkeley, said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean.
So far this year, there have been 5,457 fires on state property, burning a total of 150,060 acres, said McLean. Last year at this time, 4,666 fires had scorched 307,112 acres.
"People have this false sense of complacency now that we have winter time and it's raining," McLean said. "But the vegetation has not had a chance to grasp that moisture. It's still dry out there.
"It doesn't take anything to ignite a fire," he added.
Making matters worse, a key piece of revenue that paid for fire prevention efforts in the hills since 2004, such as hiring crews and goats to clear brush for emergency escape routes, fire patrols, vegetation inspections and wood chipping programs, is ending. In 2013 the Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, estimated to raise about $1.7 million annually, fell 66 votes short. Its treasury is expected to run dry in July, said Sue Piper, who lost her home in the fire.
"That is evidence of complacency," Hoffmann, the deputy chief, said. "We have people living up there now who were not here during the fire."
Bob Sieben, who moved to the hills after the 1991 fire and has studied wildfires, said fire-prevention funding has been devastated because of the long fire season. He said there was a red flag warning in January, and homeowners have to be vigilant year-round.
"Of course it's worrisome," he said. "That is bad but on the other hand it makes it all the more important for homeowners to be prepared."
Goats, volunteers and firefighters still can be seen clearing the hills of brush. But the steep, curvy roads with hairpin turns remain, making emergency access and evacuations tricky.
If a big fire strikes again, Hoffmann said, "help may not be coming right away." Oakland will rely on assistance from other departments, like it did that fateful day in 1991.
"Learn the lesson that's been brought to us and heed the warning: get out early," Hoffmann said. "It gets bad, and it gets bad in a hurry."