'Tree of Hope' remembers Oakland Hills Firestorm on 30 year anniversary

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ByKate Larsen KGO logo
Thursday, October 21, 2021
'Tree of Hope' shines on anniversary of historic Oakland fire
The "tree of hope" lights up the once burn-scarred East Bay Hills every year on the anniversary of the 1991 Oakland hills fire.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Thirty years ago today, on October 20, 1991, the East Bay Hills caught fire resulting in one of the most catastrophic fires in California history.

Two months after the devastating firestorm, that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes, a nursery owner wanted to give survivors something to look forward to, so he planted a 35-foot Christmas tree at the top of Grizzly Peak in Russ Aubry's backyard.

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

Firefighters saved Aubry's home in the 1991 fire and every year since he's lit a new kind of tree, a "tree of hope," that lights up the once burn-scarred East Bay Hills.

"The people who lost their lives in the fire are the reason, and the families who lost those, those lights shine and sparkle for the spirit of people who were here before," said Aubry, at an anniversary tree lighting ceremony he held at his home Wednesday night.

Oakland resident, Louis Douglas McNeary Jr., died near his home in the Oakland Hills trying to save a neighbor. In remembrance, his family rang a bell during the ceremony.

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.

"I just hope he didn't suffer, and I just hope that what happened, happened quickly," said Toni McNeary-Garvin.

Toni and Alicia McNeary were in their 20's when their Dad died.

"When I see all these other fires that happen every single year, it just brings up the memories all over again," said Alicia, who asked, "why does this keep happening, how can we resolve this, how can we fix this so this doesn't happen to any other families?"

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

The Oakland and Berkeley fire chiefs and mayors spoke at the ceremony to address just that, along with their own memories.

"Thirty years ago, my dad lost his home and I came here with my sister to go through the ashes of what had been our family photo albums," said Oakland Mayor, Libby Schaaf.

Mayor Schaaf says the Bay Area is safer because of hard lessons learned during the firestorm. "The fact that departments have inner operability, that their hoses fit on the fire hydrants in every city, that the radios can talk to one and other, what we've learned about vegetation management."

Neighbors can take solace that 30 years later, rain is washing away fire danger for at least a few months.