California’s biggest fire in 85 years came when most citizens and some fire officials figured the fire season was over for the year.
On Oct. 20, 1991, the urban section of East Bay Hills of Oakland, Calif., just across the bay from San Francisco, was engulfed in flames. The fire was classified as the worst disaster of 1991 and was the largest to occur in California since 1906, when an earthquake induced fires.
The Oakland fire started at approximately 10:58 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20. With the aid of extremely high onshore “Santa Anna” type winds, the initial spark was blown into a full-fledged inferno within minutes as the fire fed on dry grass and trees caused by a five-year drought. For the first fire crews on the scene, it was an unbelievable sight as houses caught fire right before their eyes and they were powerless to do anything about it.
The three Oakland Fire dispatchers on duty were overwhelmed with calls for help and calls reporting the fire. According to many reports, the communication link broke down here. Despite numerous requests from the on-scene firefighters for mutual aid, their requests went unanswered for an unusual amount of time. One observer noted that at 12:30 p.m., about one-and-a-half hours after the fire started, no air support was available. Some believe that even though the fire started out as almost “uncontrollable,” air support could have made a difference. Another area of concern was that Berkeley, the neighbor to the north of Oakland, was not advised of the fire by the Oakland Fire Department, but rather by Berkeley residents reporting that the fire had entered the city.
Over the course of the fire, nearly 400 fire units and 2,000 firefighters were pressed into action, representing departments as far as 200 miles from the fire scene. More than 25 total aircraft were used to fight the fire as it spread to nearly 3,500 acres.
The fire was considered under control by Wednesday, Oct. 23. In its aftermath lay barren, burned land which once housed single family homes and apartment complexes. Of the more than 10,000 people residing in the area, half were considered homeless after the fire. One hundred fifty were injured and 25 died.
According to the Red Cross, more than 3,300 houses were destroyed and the estimated damage from the fire alone is between $1.5 and $2 billion. Additional expenses will involve utility related activities, debris removal, fire fighting costs and much more that will be calculated as the residents and the cities involved gather further data.
Fighting the fire was not without its problems. Electric water pumps lost power due to burnt power lines, resulting in the loss of pumping capability to fire hydrants. Dense smoke created problems for aircraft fighting the fire and dry conditions fed the flames faster than fire personnel could douse them.
Once the fire was out, reminders of its fury lingered. Area residents had little more than chimneys and foundations left of their homes. And in San Francisco, nearly 20 miles away, dense smoke darkened the skies, dropping ashes on everything in its wake. For many, it was another reminder that anything can happen at any time, so be prepared!
Ronald R. Sathre, CDRP and CCP, is a security project manager/emergency planning coordinator for ROLM Systems.
This article adapted from Vol. 5 #2.