Local firefighters reenact the Hills Fire response
on October 15, 2011
The sun was beaming down on a cluster of Oakland reporters as they waited Thursday afternoon for the firefighters, trying figure out who had dibs on the first ride.
“What time is your deadline?” one of the reporters asked.
“12:00,” two of them said.
“5:00,” said another.
Suddenly a bell clanged, and all the lights in the firehouse came on at once.
Scurrying across the concrete garage of the North Hills fire station on Amito Avenue, the crew made a beeline towards the shiny red truck in the garage. They put on their gear—jumpsuits first, then boots—and prepared to head out.
“WHAM!” “WHAM!” “WHAM!” echoed throughout the garage as they slammed their doors shut. The truck was packed—two firefighter and two reporters. The reporters had to ride in shifts so that everyone would have a turn.
The firefighters put on their headphones, fastened their seatbelts, turned on their lights and sirens, and peeled out of the garage towards the narrow, steep road. With notepads and video cameras in tow, reporters were getting a feel for what it was like to ride in a fire truck during the massive fire that devastated the Oakland Hills 20 years ago.
What began as a small a small brush fire in the hills on October 20, 1991, is now labeled one of the worst urban disasters in American history. The fire caused 25 deaths and more than $2 billion in damages, and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills areas.
On Thursday morning, as the two-decade anniversary approached, a few North Hills firefighters reenacted their first call alarm, bringing reporters with them to demonstrate the challenges of reaching the burning hills as they drove through the winding streets.
For the demonstration, which was arranged in conjunction with the Insurance Information Network of California, the firefighters showed reporters how steep and narrow the roads were and how congested the roads can become with parked vehicles.
With the engine blaring, the crew of two drove as fast as they could through the hills. The truck jolted along Charing Cross Road. Everything shook—the cameras, the reporters, and even the securely-fastened driver, who occasionally grabbed the rail attached to the side of the widow frame as he turned the corners.
“I want you to see how they’ve cleared away the grass on this hillside,” said Lieutenant Sherri Banks, who was one of the firefighters on duty 20 years ago, as she pointed out of the passenger window while the two reporters— one of them feeling somewhat seasick— stepped off of the truck to look at the distant houses and trees.
The driver revved up the engine and headed down the winding road. Parked cars and trucks packed the road. One driver, headed in the opposite direction, had to back up and wait for the fire truck to pass before she could continue driving.
After the reenactment, Banks sat at the firehouse kitchen table, still wearing her yellow jumpsuit, and talked about her experience as she fought the Hills Fire in ‘91.
“I felt like a warrior going to battle,” Banks said
Banks searched for a way to describe her recollections of that day. At the time, she worked for Berkeley’s Station 13, off of Derby Street. She was called to the fire at noon. “I was lost for words when I got there,” Banks said. “I remember we were on the freeway. I couldn’t see anything until I got to Highway 24. The smoke looked like a mushroom cloud. But part of our training requires us to be fearless.”
Banks, a mother of two, said her biggest concern was her family. “I knew that they would watch the news, and know that their mom was at work,” she said. “The fire was so big…It wasn’t ‘Save the house.’ It was ‘Save a block.'”
Saving a block is exactly what the Diablo Firesafe Council, an organization that provides fire safe information to homeowners, is trying to do.
“We have to live where we live, but there are ways we can be more safe,” said Cheryl Miller, the executive coordinator for the Diablo Firesafe Council. “You can pay attention to what’s in your garden, know what your roof is like.”
The reenactment gave reporters insight on what has changed 20 years after the fire, and what still is problem today.
“We can’t change the roads,” Oakland Battalion Fire Chief William Towner told the reporters at the North Hills Station. “We can work at eliminating the bulk of the fuels that are up here.”
Since the storm, Towner said, the Oakland fire department has asked homeowners to clear flammable vegetation around their homes and used fire crews to remove debris that might become fuel. The department has also improved wildlife training for firefighters, he said—better radio communication and equipment to accommodate woodland fires.
“We’ve lessened the possibility and the probability of a catastrophic event,” said Towner. “That does not guarantee that we can’t have another one.”
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