Many years have passed since the catastrophic Oakland Firestorm raged through the hills in October 1991, but for the East Bay Regional Park District staff members who fought it, the memories are still vivid.
Facing the largest wildland-urban interface fire in the Bay Area’s history, the Park District staff responded in an exemplary, even heroic fashion.
It all began on Saturday, Oct. 19, 1991with a small fire on private property in the Oakland hills, whose cause has never been conclusively determined. There was little wind, and Oakland firefighters extinguished the blaze, with mutual aid from Park District crews and the state.
But smoldering embers reignited the next morning. Fanned that day by strong easterly winds, the fire soon became an inferno.
At its height, 1,500 firefighters and 450 engines from all over Northern California were fighting it. By the time it burned out, it had consumed 2.5 square miles of mostly residential neighborhoods. Twenty-five people were killed and 150 injured. The fire destroyed 3,469 homes and apartment units and 2,000 automobiles. Ten thousand people were evacuated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that the fire cost $3.9 billion in present-day dollars. It is still considered the largest single fire in California history in terms of cost, homes lost and people killed.
Responding to mutual aid calls from the Oakland Fire Department, virtually every available firefighter and public safety officer in the Park District, as well as many other District staff and volunteers, helped to fight the fire or assist evacuees. Some 60 Park District firefighters and 48 police officers were involved at one time or another. Working in concert with other fire departments and citizen volunteers, they were able to save dozens of homes from destruction.
While firefighters from Oakland, Berkeley and numerous other cities had the overwhelming task of facing the wind-blown flames head-on, Park District firefighters were deployed along Grizzly Peak Boulevard, Claremont Canyon and other streets high in the Oakland hills, where they fought to keep the fire from spreading north, south or eastward into Contra Costa County.
District police officers evacuated fire zone residents, directed traffic, and kept unauthorized persons away from the danger area. Evacuating homeowners who were reluctant to leave, even in the face of advancing flames, was an especially difficult task.
Continued... >> The first day