31 years later, Oakland Hills firestorm victims worry lessons learned are now 'forgotten'

Stephanie Sierra Image
Friday, October 21, 2022
Oakland firestorm victims worry lessons learned are now 'forgotten'
1991 Oakland Hills firestorm victims worry evacuation routes and home hardening in highly trafficked areas have not been addressed.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Thirty-one years after the Oakland firestorm tore through the city's northern hillside, residents are concerned the same mistakes are happening again.

"At the time of the fire we felt this amazing powerlessness," said Oakland resident Tom Grossman.

WATCH: Oakland Hills Fire decades years later: Survivors' stories captured in ABC7 documentary 'Firestorm'

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.

The 1991 Oakland firestorm started as a small fire on private property in the Oakland hills. The flames were extinguished until smoldering embers sparked the next morning exploding into a deadly inferno.

Twenty-five lives were lost and more than 3,400 homes were destroyed in the fire. Grossman was part of the search and rescue management team that walked through the rubble to find missing people.

"I had a buddy who was a police officer from Hayward his badge melted from the heat, but he kept walking through to help people," said Grossman, also describing how Oakland police lost an officer who was helping evacuees. "The courage of the emergency services people was astounding."

FROM THE ARCHIVE: A look back at devastating Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991

But Grossman says some of the problems he witnessed at the height of the tragedy three decades ago still haven't been addressed. Issues like clear evacuation routes and home hardening in high-traffic areas.

"We have an evacuation route challenge here in the hills," Grossman said. "We only have a handful of roads that head out of the hills. Those roads are overhung by trees that will burn and turn the roads into a furnace."

People died on evacuation routes during the 2018 Camp Fire due to excess fuel left on the roads that left behind no escape. A fear facing the same neighborhoods in the Oakland hills. Grossman estimates only around one in five homes in the areas that previously burned have properly hardened their homes.

"It's a problem," said Doug Mosher, the program director for the Oakland Firesafe Council. "This area has been designated, pretty much the hills and a lot of the foothills going west into Oakland as a high-fire severity zone."

MORE: Camp Fire is deadliest wildfire in California history

The Oakland Firesafe Council works with homeowners in Oakland and Alameda County to reduce their wildfire risk. But questions are being raised as to why the city hasn't taken certain preventative measures to mitigate areas already at heightened or extreme risk. For example, Grossman says there are empty lots filled with extra vegetation and debris scattered around the high-risk severity zone of the Oakland hills.

"We've reported it to the city, but we're still waiting for them to take action," Grossman said.

Oakland Fire Department officials say crews completed roughly 25,000 vegetation management inspections in high-fire risk zones. These inspections are designed to ensure homeowners are up to standards for home hardening. OFD told the I-Team, inspectors have reported around a 90 percent compliance rate so far this year. But members of the Oakland Firesafe Council argue that figure isn't reflecting the reality on the roads.

"We saw what happened in the 1991 hills fire... that was tragic and we don't want to see that again," said Mosher.

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.

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