20 years later, preparedness key for Oakland Hils


But the key to fire safety 20 years after the East Bay firestorm is prevention.

On Sunday, October 20, 1991, firefighters found they were undermanned and overpowered as a firestorm raged through the Oakland Hills. Twenty-five people were killed and nearly 3,500 hundred homes were destroyed in a matter of hours.

"It was quite scary, to be frank with you," said Oakland Fire Department Deputy Chief James Williams. "The fire department had never seen conditions where you had blocks and blocks of buildings burning."

Williams was a firefighter on the front lines during the Oakland Hills firestorm. While help came from CalFire and other departments as far away as Sacramento, they were no match for a fire that created its own weather and took on a disastrous life of its own.

Today, Williams says the region as a whole is better equipped to combat a large wild land fire, and that starts with prevention.

"We insure that people follow fire prevention principles of reducing grass levels, making sure debris is not on their roof and having defensible space around the home, which is one of the most crucial things that you need to worry about," Williams said.

Soon after the 1991 firestorm, the Hills Emergency Forum was formed. The mission: To coordinate the activities of the various entities that owned and maintained land in the East Bay hills.

The forum includes the University of California, East Bay Regional Park and East Bay MUD, among others.

"We knew the fire didn't respect those boundaries, and we needed to not respect those boundaries and keep talking and working together," said Cheryl Miller with the Hills Emergency Forum.

The forum oversees everything from hiring herds of goats to chew away the dry fuels on hillsides to scheduling crews to clear brush before it becomes a hazard.

"Where we live is kind of in harm's way," said Gordin Piper with the Oakland Landscape Committe. "You can't wait 'til the firestorm or the fire is coming over the hill to do something about it."

Another big change since 1991: The fire department has its own weather monitoring station that gives them real-time data from key locations along the Oakland Hills.

Assistant Fire Marshal Leroy Griffin monitors the two high-tech weather stations in the Oakland Hills.

"The data that is provided by the weather stations assist us in staffing, when to change condition signs within the hill itself, (and) alert residents and neighbors that we have high or low fire weather conditions," Griffin said.

East Bay firefighters now receive annual training. The department has purchased wild land rigs, and radio communication has greatly improved.

Oakland's hydrants have also been modified from three inches to 2.5 inches so other agencies from outside areas can use them. In some neighborhoods, residents have a stash of equipment that could help them contain a fire until the professionals arrive.

"If we see something (we) let firefighters know first, and then (we) look at it from the standpoint (of) 'Can we do something to mitigate the situation?'" resident Ed Ono said, adding that if they can't do anything, they leave.

With the changes, the hope is that something like the firestorm of 1991 might never happen again.

"The reality is, yes, a fire could happen again," Williams said. "It is our hope that through good fire prevention efforts and vegetation management, we're able to reduce the fuel load and give the fire department an opportunity to get a handle on it."

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