1991 Firestorm Memories | Bill Nichols

1991 Firestorm Banner

Bill Nichols

I spent many hours after the fire working with an Oakland Chief, an Oakland Captain, and a civilian volunteer trying to figure out what really happened the day of the fire. It took a few years to come to an understanding. There were three major factors. First was the weather including the wind, the humidity, and the years of drought. Next was the human infrastructure meaning the narrow streets, the materials used in housing, the lack of vegetation management, and the overhead power lines. The last was hubris. Hubris is an old Greek word meaning human pride and arrogance in the presence of the gods. Trade gods for the forces of nature and you have what transpired that day.

The most basic mistakes were made by the other agency, orders were not carried out, people left the scene even as conditions worsened. Suffice it to say the most important part of the training I give on this topic is for folks to insure, and make doubly sure, that the location or address they initially report is correct. Of course, none of this made it to the official reports and the other agency still has no idea of what really happened. It was the wind, we were told. Nothing could have been done with that wind.

Having this knowledge was a burden – one that I carried for many years. I kept running the tape loop of that morning through my head looking for a change or something that I may have missed. In June of 2008 we responded to a fire coming up from Tunnel Road into some houses on Charing Cross Road – where many of the people died in 1991. We asked the other agency for help and they declined. We were able to knock down the fire with a downhill hose lay into unburned fuel just as the fire got into the decks of the homes. Lucky. I was overwhelmed with joy and sadness at the same time. Told Peg Groleau on the radio, “We got it this time.” Changed the tape loop. I don’t dwell on 1991 so much.

Our people were magnificent that day – all of them. We had firefighters saving neighborhoods after being told they were going to die by retreating departments. It was a privilege to be in their ranks. The thing about our department – you were always with a friend.

There were two young women that died in the big fire. I think of them often, alone and frightened in the last seconds. May they rest in peace. 25 dead, 3,000 homes burned, lives forever changed. One of the mothers asked the chiefs from the other agency how they could have allowed this to happen to her daughter. No answer was given. I think of them often.

The Oakland Hills Firestorm – 20 Years Later: Our Story