Oakland firestorm: 20 yrs later, a changed landscape

October 18, 2011 7:25:42 PM PDT
It has been 20 years since the Oakland Hills firestorm. When it was over, 25 people were dead and more than 3,000 homes destroyed. All but a handful of those homes have been rebuilt. However, they're far different than the ones which burned down.

Architect Peter Gray Scott has both bitter and poignant memories pasted in his scrapbook. There are pictures of the fire's spread, homes -- including his -- burning like struck matches, and people trying desperately to save their homes.

"Within three minutes a house was on fire and from that moment on for the next hour it was in fact a firestorm," Scott said.

A firestorm is created when a huge blaze is burning so hot it generates its own wind. On Sunday, Oct. 20, 1991, those winds helped spread embers to the roofs of homes and soon whole blocks were burning.

"There's this sort of myth that the trees are responsible for spreading fire and the opposite is true," Scott said. "There's 20 times as much fuel in the typical wood frame two-story house as there is an equal area of forest."

Scott says the homes themselves were primed to burn. Many had dried out shake roofs. Others had untreated tar and gravel roofs. Both burned out of control.

"It was devastating," Claudia Bowman, a realtor who represented buyers and sellers before the fire and after, said. "Everything was burnt out."

Bowman says many of the people who rebuilt put up much bigger homes.

"If they decided not to sell the lot and to stay in this area, they wanted to build their dream home," Bowman said. "If they sold the lot and an investor came in and built a home, they make more money by building a larger home."

The Oakland Planning and Zoning Department estimates that by 1997 up to 500 of the 1,400 single family homes that were rebuilt were monster homes -- 500 to 1,500 square feet larger than homes that existed before the fire. That's when the city stepped in and limited the size of new homes in the hills.

"The real problem is that the houses are closer together, so fighting the fire and trying to save that larger house becomes almost impossible," Scott said.

So the focus becomes keeping those homes from becoming fuel. Building regulations now require fire-resistant roofs and siding, spark arresters and landscaping that creates 30 feet of defensible space around the home.

There are also now rules that require a new home to be no bigger than half the size of the lot it's on. Those are among the painful lessons homeowners and firefighters had to learn before the next fire in the hills.


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