Red flag warning lifted, but hills still in danger

on October 14, 2008

By ISABEL ESTERMAN

OCT. 14 — The red flag fire warning for the Oakland hills was lifted this morning, but officials urge residents to remain vigilant. The area is no longer being whipped by the 35 mph gusts that raised concerns over the weekend, but conditions in the drought-stricken hills are reminiscent of the weeks before the devastating 1991 Oakland firestorm.

“We have had a dry winter and the hazard still exists up there,” said Oakland Fire Department spokesman Lt. David Brue after fire officials downgraded the fire danger alert from “extreme” to “high” this morning.

High winds over the weekend led the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning for the East Bay hills. The warning expired at 11 a.m. after wind speeds dropped, said Diana Henderson, a forecaster at the agency’s Bay Area office. “It’s still going to be dry,” she said. “But the wind isn’t going to be whistling through there like it has in the last few days.”

Strong winds decrease humidity and increase the chance that a wildfire, once started, will spread rapidly, explained Brue.

That is what happened in the 1991 Oakland firestorm that killed 25 people and burned more than 1,500 acres. On Saturday, Oct. 19 that year a small fire started near Highway 24.

Upper Rockridge resident Michael Hopkins watched from his home as helicopters dropped flame retardant on the fire. By nightfall firefighters thought the blaze was contained. “But when the wind came on Sunday, that’s when everything broke loose,” said Hopkins.

The fire jumped Highway 24 and threatened to engulf Hopkins’ neighborhood.

“I remember ashes and cinders, almost like a volcanic eruption,” he said.  “The sky was this kind of red inferno color.”

North Oakland is not as overgrown as it used to be and no longer has as many wooden-shingled houses, Hopkins said, so he believes the danger has been reduced.

“But there’s always that risk,” he said.

The fires that roared across Angel Island this weekend, and that continue to rage in Southern California, are a stark reminder the fire season isn’t over yet.

“October historically is when we see the largest and most dangerous fires,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. State officials are particularly concerned this year, because trees and brush are extremely dry after a two-year drought.

“We have perfect conditions for wild fires,” Berlant said. “There’s a lot of potential, just like there was in 1991.”

With the immediate fire threat reduced, the Oakland Fire Department has suspended the deployment of mobile patrol units in the Oakland hills, but it will still respond to any reports it receives with extra caution, said Brue. Instead of sending 13 firefighters to a call in the hills as it would in low-risk periods, the department will dispatch 30 people as long as danger remains high. Officials warn residents to take extra precautions as well – avoiding tossing cigarette butts and refraining from yard work on dry, hot days when a spark from a lawnmower hitting a rock could ignite a grassfire.

“Until we get some rain,” said Brue, “we’re not really going to say that people can relax.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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