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1991 Firestorm Memories | Mark and Jerry Fight The Fire

Firestorm 1991 Banner

Mark Ragatz and Jerry Kent

A chance encounter while responding to the Oakland Hills firestorm brought together what turned out to be a great firefighting team: Park District Assistant General Manager Jerry Kent, and Reservations Supervisor Mark Ragatz.

Kent had been notified that a fire in the Oakland hills had been extinguished successfully on Saturday. He learned more through informal channels later that day, when he hosted a barbecue for some of his staff at his Lafayette home. One of the guests was Bea Soria, who had helped to fight the fire. “Bea showed up kind of smoky,” Jerry said.

On Sunday, Kent received a call from Steve Jones, chief of park operations, now retired, who told him that there was another fire in the canyon above the Caldecott Tunnel and it seemed significant. Kent decided to check it out. Using his Park District sedan, he drove up Pinehurst Road to Skyline Boulevard.

Kent was wearing the worst possible clothes for firefighting: a Hawaiian shirt, loafers, and polyester trousers. And he had recently injured both knees in a fall in his garage. But he was not without firefighting experience. While attending college in Oregon, Kent had spent two summers as foreman of a fire suppression crew fighting forest fires. And he had served in the Park District fire department for 11 years until management duties required all his working time.

Kent first encountered a motorcyclist on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. He later learned that the man was Joe Whitehouse, a Grizzly Peak resident and member of the Oakland Open Space Committee. Whitehouse estimated that about 15 houses were ablaze. The entire canyon was covered in dense, black smoke, obscuring the view. They later learned that the total loss was more like 800 houses during the fire’s first hour.

Then Kent saw flames advancing through brush toward a house on the downhill side of the road. Lacking firefighting equipment and water, all he could do was watch as the house burned down. Kent drove off in search of firefighters.

Meanwhile, Ragatz had been called to firefighting duty, along with every other available District firefighter. At about 1 p.m., he was ordered to take his engine from Fire Station 2 on Redwood Road and meet Oakland fire units on Skyline Boulevard.

As he drove north alone on Skyline, Ragatz became increasingly concerned as glimpses of the fire from roadside turnouts revealed its magnitude. He could see smoke streaming from the Oakland hills towards San Francisco. Ragatz had fought fires before, but nothing as huge.

“That was the scariest thing I’d ever done,” he said. “Being on your own and coming into something like that was extremely unnerving.”

Ragatz found that Skyline Boulevard had been blocked a short distance north of the intersection with Grizzly Peak Boulevard. While he was asking Oakland police officers which Oakland fire units were closest, Kent drove up in his Park District sedan.

“Mark!” Kent said. “Come with me! I saw some houses back there that we can save.”

“Having Jerry appear calmed me down and gave me some confidence and feeling that now we can do something,” Mark said.

Ragatz and Kent drove back to Grizzly Peak Boulevard. There, they saw that the fire had almost reached the crest of the ridge; two houses on the downhill side were burning. Both were lost.

Fortunately there was a working fire hydrant right below the house at 5940 on the uphill side. Ragatz parked his “brush rig” in the middle of the road, connected a hose to the hydrant, and started to work. Kent helped some residents connect other hoses to the engine to protect their homes, which were not yet burning. Ragatz fought the fire, Kent and the homeowners dragged hose for him, Kent said.

Then the fire jumped Grizzly Peak Boulevard farther north, circled around, and started to burn under the back deck at 5940. No one was home, so Ragatz and Kent forced entry, and laid a hose through the garage out to the back deck.

Using tools from the garage, Kent chopped a hole in stairs leading off the deck so Ragatz could spray water under the deck and extinguish the flames.

When Ragatz directed a blast of water at fire burning beyond the deck, it flared up. Ragatz stepped back and into the hole, fracturing his thumb when he fell. That turned out to be the most serious injury suffered by any Park District staff while fighting the fire.

Still, Ragatz was able to extinguish the fire burning farther down the hill. All the water made the slope so muddy that he had to use his fire hose as a rope, while someone pulled him back up the hill.

After several hours of firefighting, Kent radioed the command post on Fish Ranch Road to send some firefighters to replace Ragatz, who was driven to Eden Hospital in Hayward.

Ragatz and Kent were mutually complimentary. “Just his cool and calm was real helpful to me,” Ragatz said. “He helped to refocus me a couple of times.”

“It was Mark that did it,” Kent said. “I was an invalid at that point.” Their work and that of the homeowners essentially stopped the fire at the upper end of Thornhill Canyon and saved about a dozen homes along the ridge.

After Ragatz left, Steve Jones arrived in a District jeep and offered Kent a ride. They drove down to Lake Temescal through Thornhill Canyon, where firefighters were still fighting the fire, house by house. At Lake Temescal they met Park Supervisor Frances Heath, whose greeting – “I saved your paychecks” – has earned her lasting fame.

> The Oakland Hills Firestorm – 20 Years Later: Our Story

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