30 years after firestorm ravaged East Bay hills, here's what's being done to keep it from repeating

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Thursday, October 21, 2021
Preventing a new East Bay firestorm 30 years after tragic blaze
The 1991 Oakland East Bay hills fire killed 25 people and burned 3,500 homes. Now, homeowners are working to prevent another fire.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Thirty years have passed since a deadly firestorm ravaged the Oakland and Berkeley hills in just a few hours.

The flames were driven by fierce winds and fueled by dry brush caused by five years of drought.

In a matter of hours, the fire destroyed more than 3,500 single-family houses and apartments and killed 25 people.

RELATED: Oakland Hills Fire 30 years later: Survivors' stories captured in new ABC7 documentary 'Firestorm'

"It was a forest fire of homes," said Dee Rosario, who fought the blaze as a fire lieutenant for the East Bay Regional Park District and is now in the board of directors of the agency.

Materials like dry wood, trees and bushes next to homes and dried leaves on roofs helped fuel the fire.

"People that are looking at the mega fires that we have right now and weren't around for the Oakland Tunnel Fire in 1991 forget that was really the first one of its kind," said Chief Aileen Theile of the East Bay Regional Park District.

WATCH: 'Firestorm' tells Oakland Hills fire survivors' stories 30 years later

Wildfires don't just happen in the wild. They can happen in the middle of cities, too. And they are terrifying. Take a look back at the firestorm that tore through the East Bay Hills, streaming now on our ABC7 News Bay Area app.

In 2010, the EBRPD adopted a Wildfire Hazard Reduction Plan that covers an area from Richmond to Castro Valley.

The work includes clearing large fields of brush, removing dead trees and thinning out forests to minimize the areas with a heavy fuel load.

"Removing dead trees is really a crucial piece of this puzzle," said Jessica Morse, California Deputy Secretary for Forest and Wildlife Resilience.

Where trees have been thinned out, flames from dry brush stay on the ground and have less of a change of reaching tree canopies where embers can be driven by the wind into other areas.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: ABC7 News special coverage of the 1991 East Bay Hills Fire

The Oakland Fire Department does yearly inspections of homes in the high-risk area to warn residents of potential fire fuel. Residents can be fined for not maintaining a defensive space between vegetation and their homes.

"There are many hazards around houses. A lot of them have shingles on the outside which can be very combustible," said Assistant Fire Chief Robert Lipp of the Oakland Fire Department.

Oakland is now part of Zone Haven, an online tool that lets emergency management agencies send out faster evacuation alerts.

"It's really important for every occupant in the city to know they zone. We need people to be prepared to evacuate," said Lipp.

RELATED: 3,000 goats helping to prevent wildfires in Oakland

The alerts are sent out by zone. The app let's people figure out what zone they live in and sign up for alerts.

Sue Piper rebuilt after her house burned down in the 1991 firestorm. Now, she and her husband dedicate their lives to educating residents of the East Bay hills about fire safety.

"A big challenge is just educating people who choose to live in this beautiful area to know that they live in harm's way," said Piper, who has dedicated her life since the fire on wildfire prevention.

VIDEO: Community reflects on deadly Oakland Hills fire

The 29th anniversary of the Oakland Hills fire that killed 25 people is approaching. Firefighters and residents share haunting memories, and fears, as we enter another weekend of potentially high fire danger.

She and her husband created the Firestone Memorial Garden to remember the victims of the blaze. Later, they founded the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center to educate residents about the risks of wildfire, and in 2014, she established the Oakland Firesafe Council, a community-run group that advocates for vegetation management and fire prevention.

According to Piper, residents can't do anything about hotter days and dry winds caused by climate change, but they can do something to reduce the vegetation around their homes.

On a recent Saturday morning, Richard Kauffman led a group of volunteers from Friends of Sausal Creek to clear dead vegetation from a canyon in Oakland.

Volunteers cut dead branches from trees and raked up dried leaves from the ground.

"If there was a fire down here, it would just race up the canyon walls to the 35 houses that ring the canyon," said Kauffman.

He said the city of Oakland does not have enough resources to do this kind of work so it is up to residents to maintain areas in the high fire severity zone.

You can watch Firestorm: The East Bay Hills Fire right now, on your TV through the ABC7 Bay Area streaming apps. The app is available on Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV and Roku.

Go here to learn how to download the ABC7 Bay Area streaming apps.