The devastating East Bay Hills Fire of 1991 swept down Temescal Canyon, quickly destroying nearly everything in its path. The area now is largely rebuilt with homes that are bigger than ever. (Carroll Williams)
NOTE: One year ago I reported this retrospective of the deadly East Bay Hills Fire. Almost exactly one year later, a fire struck my home region which entirely eclipses the 1991 Bay Area fire for loss of life, structures and affected land.
Reporting on the collection of North Bay Fires that blazed through Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino last week was nothing like covering the 25th anniversary of the East Bay Hills. While I walked around the embers of homes, I didn't know if my own street and my own loved ones were safe. When I spoke to evacuees, I worried I was keeping them from whatever action they needed to take. I worried speaking to me would make them feel more distressed, rather than heard. As the death toll slowly and then steadily rose (and continues to rise) my stomach would drop with each uptick in the numbers. In reporting on the North Bay wildfires of 2017, there was no distance of years to offer perspective: neither lessons learned nor semi-nostalgic archival news footage. I was collecting, I realize now, what may become sound and images another reporter will use in a quarter of a century looking back.
Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the devastating East Bay Hills (or Tunnel) fire. The blistering firestorm reached 2,000 degrees and was hot enough to boil asphalt, melt bronze and turn houses to ash almost instantly.
What had seemed like an easy-to-handle grass fire at first quickly overwhelmed fire crews and, in the end, destroyed 3,000 homes and took 25 lives.
The grass fire began around noon on Saturday, Oct. 19, in the backyard of a house at the end of Temescal Canyon, a steep residential area in the Oakland hills that’s surrounded by woods. The cause of ignition is still unknown. Soon after the fire was reported, however, fire crews arrived and quickly declared it under control. Then they worked in the steep canyon until dark to secure a perimeter around the burned area.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's report on the fire, a battalion chief checked the area for any visible signs of hot spots and told fighters to leave hose lines in place.
The next morning the hot, dry seasonal winds known as Diablo Winds suddenly picked up. Fire crews returned to the site of the fire at 8:50 in the morning, when hot spots were already smoking. About an hour later, the fires crews thought the fire was under control. Yet the winds soon intensified, further drying the already drought-parched landscape. By 10:45 a.m. crews were battling several major flare-ups that sent smoke down the residential canyon.
It was about this time that Margaret Schaefer was going for a walk with her brother-in-law.
"At about 10 in the morning, and we walk and we do see the smoke in the background," she recalls. "And I say, 'Hey Ray, what's going on here?' "
He told her not to worry since wildfire was common in the area.
"So we keep walking! And pretty soon I say, 'Ray, this is not looking very good! And he says, 'Maybe we should turn back.' And then suddenly we saw people running."
By 11:30 a.m. the fire was completely out of control and residents were evacuating. It was in the next half hour, between 11:30 and 12:00, that the majority of lives were lost and homes burned as the fire swept down the face of Temescal Canyon.
Schaefer had only a few moments to grab the family pets and a handful of items. She, like so many others, lost her home.
"I actually didn't think the house was going to burn down," she says. "I thought, well, it won't come this far, but we should still evacuate. You don't believe this sort of thing when it happens."
Schaefer and her husband were able to buy again in the area. Many people rebuilt on their lots. Oakland was generous with permits and encouraged the regrowth. Many houses now in the area are larger than the previous homes, though rules are tighter about building with fire-resistant materials and clearing dried brush around yards.
Fanning the Flames
While the dried vegetation in the hills that day certainly contributed to the fire, it was the hot seasonal Diablo winds that literally fanned the flames.
At the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State, fire science graduate student Carrie Bowers has made the Diablo Winds her specialty. Bowers is already a bit of a fire expert, having worked nine years as a wildlands firefighter.
Bowers’ project is studying these unique local winds and how they fueled the East Bay Hills fire. She hopes to develop a way to warn fire authorities when the winds are about to get dangerous. She has discovered that the winds that day in 1991 were not as strong as they could have been.
“The East Bay Hills fire was actually not a severe event as far as Diablo events go,” says Bowers. “It was more a moderate-type event.”
Through computer modeling Bowers is able to pinpoint the movement and effects of those Diablo Winds 25 years ago nearly down to the hour. Between 10 and 11 a.m., she says, there was a huge drop in moisture in the air. That’s when the Diablo Winds, coming down from the Central Valley — warming, drying and accelerating as they came — hit the East Bay Hills, sucking out the moisture of the already parched hills.
Each October, when Diablo Winds whip through dried vegetation, neighborhood residents like Jon Kaufman grow watchful. His house came close to burning in 1991, but escaped with minor smoke damage. Kaufman is part of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to improve fire safety in the region.
Kaufman took me for a drive through the area that burned, pointing out eucalyptus groves and dry brush undergrowth that make it more likely another serious fire will strike the area.
We drove along Hiller Drive where, by the side of the road, there’s a memorial. It’s built to look like a burned-out house where just a scorched wooden frame remains. It was built by neighbors, Kaufman says, to honor those who lost their lives and to educate those who visit about fire safety.
Diablo Winds might be out of our control, he says, but local residents can ensure that their homes are ready to be defended from fire by clearing away highly flammable trees and plants. As a model, the gardens of the memorial are planted with California native, fire-resistant plants.
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