The Oakland Hills Fire Transformed Firefighting Along a City's Edge in California

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Grainy image shows a pristine mailbox with the address 610 overlooking a singed driveway that leads to a charred car with wildfire rubble and the ridge of the East Bay Hills in the distance.
At its height, the 1991 Oakland hills fire burned so fast and fiercely that it devoured roughly one home every 11 seconds. (California Office of Emergency Services)

On Oct. 19, 1991, firefighters responded to a small grass fire in the Oakland hills near the western entrance of the Caldecott Tunnel. By evening, crews thought the fire was under control. But the next day, strong wind gusts of nearly 65 mph reignited the brush, generating a raging firestorm.

That Sunday, Sue Piper had just dropped her 4-year-old twins off at a birthday party. "When I came back and I saw the smoke, I said to my 9-year-old, 'You know, I think you should get dressed, don't sit in your pajamas.' I didn't tell her why," Piper remembered. "Meanwhile, it was getting blacker and blacker outside."

The Tunnel Fire, as it's officially known, killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes, charring over 1,500 acres. The tragic incident revolutionized how the region thinks about firefighting and fire mitigation at the boundary between urban areas and wildland.

The forest and grasslands near the houses in the East Bay hills have burned many times before — often when hot, dry fall winds have blown through the canyon. Canopied by volatile eucalyptus trees and high atop a ridge, the area is primed for fire.

Remembering the Oakland Hills Fire

And in the blustery fall of 1991, the brush and trees surrounding the houses and other structures in the hills were bone-dry after six years of drought conditions — the perfect recipe for a firestorm.

P. Lamont Ewell, Oakland's fire chief at the time, described the harrowing conditions firefighters confronted.

"We had fire that was rushing down," Ewell told KQED in a 1991 interview. "Our main concern is to make sure that our personnel are in a position where they can try and cut the fire off, but not trap themselves. So there was very little that can be done during the major head of the fire."

According to Ewell, the voracious flames spread rapidly in multiple directions while firefighters fought on in spite of their rapidly depleting water supply. The fire had knocked out the pumps that replenish the reservoirs, leaving dozens of firefighters with empty hoses. It took hours before conditions allowed PG&E workers to get close enough to jump-start emergency generators and resupply pressure to water hydrants — a frantic scramble that underscored the neighborhood's precarious infrastructure.

Rethinking everything about firefighting

In the aftermath of the blaze, Oakland's fire officials were forced to rethink everything about firefighting tactics and mitigation. Robert Lipp, now the Oakland Fire Department's assistant chief of technical operations, was a 25-year-old entry-level firefighter at the time.

He battled the flames as they swept through the overgrown neighborhoods of the Oakland hills, not far from where he lived with his mom. Lipp's friends helped his mom evacuate while he helped battle the blaze. Many of the homes he fought to save were so damaged he could barely recognize them.

Lipp says he still remembers how difficult and terrifying it was for residents as they tried to evacuate, driving down narrow, twisting roads while fire engines roared up the hill.

"The changes began immediately. Before the last smoldering ember was put out," Lipp said.

Oakland fire officials built two fire stations in the hills and began improving critical infrastructure, including better communication tools, evacuation routes, staff training and equipment.

And while the department is better prepared now, it's also confronting another major challenge that few had heard of 30 years ago: climate change.

A person in a hard hat moves in silhouette of an entirely orange-and-black scene -- nothing is discernible other than flames, and maybe the outline of a car wheel.
An Oakland firefighter battles a vibrant orange blaze in one section of the 1991 Oakland hills fire that claimed 25 lives. (California Office of Emergency Services)

Preparing to fight fires in a warmer climate

UC Berkeley fire scientist Scott Stephens says the warming climate and drier conditions make it essential for residents in the East Bay hills to prepare for more fires.

"We're just going to have more vulnerability, and fires that are able to spread even faster because of spotting," he said, referring to wind-blown embers that ignite new fires far beyond the main blaze.

"If we can remove the hazard on top of these hills, we're going to have a much better chance of communities at the bottom of these hills surviving," he said.

Stephens also says California needs more restrictive building codes and better road access — especially in high-fire danger areas that are full of dry vegetation or highly flammable eucalyptus.

Row of trees turned black by the fire on an overlook from the East Bay hills looking out to the bay.
Scorched trees and outlines of home foundations are all that remained on some Oakland hills streets after the 1991 fire. (California Office of Emergency Services)

Living with a legacy of fire

As for Sue Piper, the Oakland hills fire consumed her home and changed the course of her life. In the 30 years since the disaster, she and her husband — who rebuilt their home on the same property — have become emergency preparedness pros, dedicating their lives to keeping as many people as possible out of harm's way. She now serves as chair of Oakland Firesafe Council.

At a recent volunteer work party in the Fire Resistant Demonstration Garden along Highway 24, Piper said much has changed since 1991. Her neighborhood is much safer, but she warned that the houses themselves are fuel.

"They're probably more fuel than the vegetation around them," she said. "So we're not in a forest. We're in a forest of houses."

Piper believes fire-safe landscaping and securing homes can only do so much. She's now pushing for a "joint authority" to adopt universal standards for cutting flammable vegetation, which all agencies and landowners in the region would have to adhere to. Only that, she says, can prevent the worst-case scenario: a fire that could consume everything on its way to the waters of the bay.

"Fire knows no jurisdiction," she explained. "This is city property. Caltrans owns that. And that above us is East Bay Regional Park. I'm at the mercy of the one piece of property that is not up to par."

KQED's Nina Thorsen contributed to this story. Some archival reporting from 1991 also is included in this post. 

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