1991 Firestorm Memories | Janet Gomes

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Janet Gomes

Hi, as you gather bits of memories from each of us you will put together an amazing story. I know that Bill Nichols became our historian after the fire as he had a very thorough understanding about the timeline; involved agencies, news clips and first-hand accounts of our experiences. He was my debriefing guru as I was a rookie and gained a wealth of experience from the incident. I was there for three days.

I just spoke with Paul Miller as I worked with him and Rocky Vargas on the Fire. It was interesting to speak with him as our memories, while similar, were so obviously individually keyed into very specific sounds and events. Paul spoke about several large bangs and the flames in our path and seeing his Mother’s home destroyed. He had a much more extensive understanding about the fire during the moment and I felt very secure working with him as I’d never imagined working through anything so devastating.

I was assigned to work at Tilden Park (during my furlough from Del Valle) and Jeff Wilson was the Park Supervisor. When I heard about the fire I tried to contact him for permission to leave the park and assist on the fire, I remember Dispatch telling me over the radio that he was very busy with the fire- what an understatement! I then chose to get involved and was to report to the command post- Grizzly Peak and Fish Ranch- only there wasn’t a command post yet. I met Don Goodenow and Paul Miller. We drove toward Sibley and out of the smoke and flame, one of our Firefighters came running-minus his helmet and coat and gloves, Terry Watts. He said his contact lenses were burning his eyes and he didn’t know where our other Firefighters were and that is was very bad. This was the first moment I realized that maybe, I could be in danger. Don was driving and, as Fire Chief I had complete confidence that he would know what to do, at some point we stopped and got out to walk and I remember crunchy things under my boots- when I looked down, I realized that we were walking on dead rodents burned when the fire swept over the road. I remember seeing grey deer antlers and bent down to pick them up only to have them turn into dust in my hands- later, in the news, the fire was reported to be around 2000 degrees in places as it went through. When Don had ascertained the whereabouts of our missing Fire Fighters we met with Rocky Vargas and were dispatched to work with a Fire Engine from Oakland and Fire Engine from Moraga and sent to the top of Alvarado. I’m including Paul Miller on this as he knows the names of the roads better than I.

Cars and people walking dogs down the hill – trying to pack, trying to drive out, and confusion greeted us as we drove up, the noise was like nothing I’d ever heard-I remember glass windows braking before the flames were there as the heat was so intense it broke the glass windows of homes and then the curtains would flame up inside and still up we went to the top of the hill. I remember cars in driveways with people stuffing material things and pets inside and then when we were heading back down the next day some of the cars were still there burned over and I still wonder about the people and their pets.

We had a block to protect, set up two hose lines and had no adapter for the fire hydrant so one of the other engines set up a hose but it didn’t fit our engine so Rocky sat on top of the Fire Truck holding the water hose in the tank of the truck so we could pump water for structure protection, we kept getting wind gusts that were mixed with the smells of plastic, wood and dark…the smoke at one point was so low that I couldn’t see above my knees and we were outside. Paul and I stayed on trying to protect several houses and a fence that kept igniting and felt confident that we had it safe. He kept checking on me and then Rocky but always returned.

Don Goodenow appeared out of the smoke to let us know that the other two engines had left without telling us- it was so dark, so noisy that we didn’t hear anything- and we didn’t have portable radios so if anyone had called, we didn’t hear it. He told us that our water supply would soon be empty- the EBMUD tank was drained. I am certain that Don Goodenow saved our lives. He was later rebuked for not staying at the Command post which was ridiculous, he knew where we all were. I was amazed and still am to this day about the heat of the fire and the sounds of breaking glass, and the sounds of wood groaning as houses collapsed and when we drove out, the whole block-for several blocks- both sides- were engulfed.

We were reassigned to work with Bob Bouska for more structure protection and clearing houses ahead of the fire- one home we went into still had birthday cake and balloons and presents on the table and was oddly vacant. I remember my boots being so black and dusty and tracking black footprints though people’s homes to make sure there was no one inside. We stayed in that location overnight. I couldn’t sleep, the rodents kept scuttling thought the brush, down driveways, stray cats, it was now little eerie scuttling sounds and helicopters and fire engine diesel fumes that kept me awake. I wanted a shower.

We went back up the following day to our initial structure protection location, it was all black, smoking rubble. I was sad that we didn’t get that last chance to save the red house on the corner, we were so close.

After day one, we to continued putting out hot spots and I was shocked to hear about assignments to walk neighborhoods for bodies; apparently there were fatalities that I wasn’t aware of and now, the bigger picture of how many homes and how much of Oakland had been destroyed was becoming evident. I couldn’t wait to see the news, a newspaper, and talk to others about where they had been.

We walked neighborhoods with melted cars and I had a photo of a melted motorcycle, and other chimneys and burned homes but had later loaned my photos to Chief Rein but they were never returned and I have been unable to track them down, I hope they are in the archives.

It wasn’t until several days later that I began to catch up on sleep and realize our closeness to death- a sadness of how close we were to an elderly female in a house that died because she couldn’t get out was in the news, her daughter had endlessly called Oakland only to be referred to Berkeley and had been told that someone would check on her Mom, but it was too late- we were 4 blocks from her and probably drove past the house when we first went in, so I am still sad for the family.

The smell of smoke took several days to wash off, and I missed working with the guys. There were daily news articles about who was to blame, how it started, how the radios couldn’t communicate, how the fire hydrants didn’t match standards, command post and CDF helicopter requests, so much to absorb. I am proud of what we accomplished. I adore the people I work with, to take a female rookie and work with me as an equal is unheard of in the traditional City Fire departments, I had a friend with Hayward Fire who was subject to so much harassment that she moved. I continue to value the experience of our department and what we provide to employees and the amazing service that dedicated people continue to provide to the public.

The potential of a new fire of similar or greater magnitude running through Oakland, Berkeley, Moraga…is real. I continue to see that Cities and people take for granted that it couldn’t possibly happen again. Lives are precious. Material things are not. There is a tile on the Memorial Wall with a thought something like,” use your fine china every day, don’t save things for special occasions”. I keep that thought daily for a variety of reasons. The trick is to let the people you respect and love know often that you value them, and to not let moments go by thinking that there will be a tomorrow.

The Oakland Hills Firestorm – 20 Years Later: Our Story