The Oakland Hills Firestorm | The fire rekindles

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HWY_13_Fire_Plume_View_113211_0001Sunday, Oct. 21 1991, dawned hot and bright, with high winds from the East, blowing towards residential neighborhoods.

Oakland fire crews had returned to the burn area early Sunday morning, and started working hot spots.

District Fire Lt. Kevin Goe was en route to duty at Station 1 at Tilden Regional Park, when Park District dispatchers radioed that Oakland wanted District firefighters to pick up the hose they had left in place the day before.

Goe drove up to Grizzly Peak Boulevard near the intersection with Marlborough Terrace, where he met fire lieutenants Rosario, Jeff Wilson, Bill Nichols, and firefighter Dan McCormick. Oakland’s Deputy Chief Donald Matthews and other Oakland firefighters were there, too. “When we got there, the wind was howling and there were smokers (hot spots) everywhere,” Rosario remembers.

The group decided to let gravity help them. They would pull the hoses downhill to Buckingham Boulevard, then roll them up on the street. Accordingly, Wilson drove his fire rig to the bottom of the hill, and Nichols came along in his Park District pickup truck, which had some empty diesel fuel cans in the back. Nichols, park supervisor at Martinez Shoreline, had driven to Tilden Regional Park that morning to fill them.

Because of all the wind and smoke, “Our guys felt we should have been laying hose, not picking it up,” Nichols said. “The mop-up that hadn’t been done (on Saturday) came back to haunt us.”

Fire_Origin_&_SF_view_113211_0002Considering what happened next, it is not an exaggeration to say that all hell broke loose. Just as the firefighters started hauling hose, the wind rose and the fire flared up on the west side of the burn area. “Flames just started popping out of the ground,” Rosario said. Wilson connected a hose to his engine, and they began to fight the fire. The hose left behind from the day before had been dismantled. It was tangled, incapable of carrying water properly.

Rosario saw pine needles fall to the ground, catch fire, and rise again in a reverse cascade, a strangely beautiful sight. Then he heard a rumble like an oncoming train. A grove of trees exploded into flame, igniting leaves on house rooftops. From Nichols’ perspective, “The whole hillside behind us blew up.” Goe watched flames rise from a Monterey pine, turn 90 degrees downhill in the wind, and torch another row of trees that blew flames right into a house.

As the firefighters scrambled frantically to do whatever they could, the scene was surreal. Wilson saw residents out in their bathrobes sipping coffee and retrieving morning papers. “A lot of them had no idea what was going on, because it happened so quickly,” he said.

Rosario credits McCormick with saving his life. As they were advancing on flames with a hose, Rosario inhaled a blast of hot air that closed his throat. McCormick grabbed the nozzle and squirted water right in Rosario’s face. That did the trick; he was able to breathe again. McCormick and Nichols dragged him back to the street.

McCormick is modest about the incident. He said he grabbed the nozzle from Rosario, adjusted it to spray mode, and the wind then blew water in Rosario’s face.

“McCormick was a new firefighter, and he did a really great job,” Wilson declared. “We sort of bonded that day.”

Someone shouted, “We’ve got to get out of here.” It wasn’t a hard decision, McCormick recalls.

Continued... >> Trapped by the fire

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