Twenty years after the Oakland hills fire, what has changed?
on October 19, 2011
On what looked at first to be a regular Sunday morning in 1991, David Kessler, a resident of the Oakland Hills, decided to go down to his pool for a swim. But something was wrong; for a California morning in the middle of fall, it was unusually, intensely hot. And the sky was a strange color.
As he walked out to Vicente Road, Kessler saw neighbors trickling out of their houses, apparently uneasy about the curious change in the weather. It did not take long before somebody suggested going uphill to investigate what was going on, and the group made its way up the narrow roads to get a clearer view of the hills.
“It was very obvious that something very ominous was going on,” said Kessler, now sitting at a dining table in his rebuilt home, with a hat that he had bought in Fanueil Hall market, in Boston, perched on his head. He has a special feeling about this hat. It’s one of the things he owns, 20 years later, that he and his wife Nancy Menell managed to save from the fire.
They were clueless at first, Kessler remembers now—like thousands of other Oakland residents who had no idea what was coming at them that day. “I got prompted by seeing a lot of cars going down the street, going by real fast,” said Kessler. “I think somebody said: ‘We should think about getting out of here.’ And that’s when it occurred to me.”
The brushfire spread through the Oakland Hills with breakneck speed, fueled by strong winds and dense reserves of natural fuels made extremely flammable by a dry summer. The wildfire, which shot out of control on October 20 and lasted almost 72 hours, was so large and fast-moving that it challenged the capacity of Northern California’s fire departments and wreaked havoc on the hills community.
As firefighters struggled to control the rapidly advancing flames on treacherous terrain, they soon began running into problems—excess dry vegetation, steep and narrow roads, houses with wood-shingle roofs, a restricted water supply, and fire hydrants that were incompatible with neighboring cities’ trucks. These factors exacerbated an already alarming situation.
By the time the last embers had been stamped out, the fire had taken 25 lives, consumed over a thousand acres land, and destroyed more than 3,500 homes— including the house of David Kessler and Nancy Menell.
Two decades later, Kessler and Menell, as well as city officials, are able to see around them some of the changes the city has implemented to try to prepare for the next big wildfire—as well as what still needs to improve. Over the past 20 years, state and city officials have created tighter rules about vegetation to reduce the risk of wildfires, as well as regulations requiring fire-resistant building materials. Fire departments have also enhanced emergency response and weather monitoring techniques. But some issues persist, such as narrow roads in the neighborhood that make access difficult for emergency personnel.
To Kessler and Menell, whose house burnt to the ground in the fire, these changes have meant the world. “We thought the fire would singe the edges of the house and go by,” said Kessler, as he remembered evacuating the area. “We never really thought the home wouldn’t be here.”
Less fuel for the fire
“The fire is totally out of control,” the Oakland incident commander said through his radio at 11:33 am on Sunday, October 21, 1991.
He was requesting support from the Alameda County strike force as he watched a wave of flames, smoke, and burning embers spreading at incredible speed through 100 acres of trees and houses in the Oakland Hills. A spate of dry, windy weather had sparked a small fire in the southeast region of the Hills the day before. Firefighters thought they had extinguished that fire, but it resurged that Sunday morning. This time the flames, pushed by winds at 30-50 miles per hour, landed on a residential zone surrounded by trees. The oil-rich vegetation and the wooden structures acted as natural fuels for what turned out to be one of the most devastating fires in California’s history.
A 1992 Federal Emergency Management Agency report concluded that the flammable surfaces of trees and building structures, coupled with the lack of separation between them, was one of the main causes of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire.
“Many of the structures were completely enveloped in the natural fuels, including the areas below overhangs,” the report found. “The trees were so dense in many places that they created a natural canopy over the roads and no regulations for clear areas between wildlands and structures were enforced.”
And so it was at the home of Menell and Kessler. “We had a century’s worth of shrubs here,” said Menell, gesturing to the land beyond her window.
“It’s very difficult (to fight fires) in a place like this ,where the houses are very close together, and there’s trees growing up,” said Kessler, before pausing and pointing with exasperation at the foliage outside his window. “You can see, there’s no view here.”
The California Fire Code was modified after the Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire and now includes regulations for defensible space, such as maintaining a 30-foot fuel reduction zone around buildings, keeping grass just 6 inches long, and removing all tree limbs within 6 feet of the ground.
Today, the vegetation surrounding Kessler and Menell’s house conforms to the new state fire code that requires residents to limit the outdoor vegetation on their properties. Over the last 20 years, state and local authorities have worked with Hills residents on reducing what’s knows as “wildland-urban interface”—in this case, too much growing too close to too many houses. The Oakland Fire Prevention Bureau makes annual property inspections to determine compliance with the California Fire Code. Some of these requirements include keeping grass six inches or shorter and maintaining at least a 10-foot space between tree branches and buildings.
But Kessler said he is still not satisfied today with the plant management in the Hills. “Even in our house, there’s much more vegetation than we’d like,” he said.
New structures, stronger homes
Menell and Kessler’s neighborhood, before 1991, was full of wood-shingled roofs— traditional, pretty and flammable. Oakland now requires all new Oakland Hills houses to have Class A roofs, those with the most fire-resistant materials, which include slate, clay, concrete roof tile or steel shingles, according to the Builders Wildfire Mitigation Guide, published by UC Berkeley’s Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Menell and Kessler rebuilt their house with new fire-resistant materials in 1994, and the city has continued to update its building codes over the years. The state building code now also demands such materials for all buildings in urban-wildland areas. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention provides a list of materials that comply with Chapter 7A building requirements.
“These materials are more accessible now than in 1991,” said Steve Quarles, a researcher at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a Florida-based organization that conducts studies on natural disasters aimed to reduce human and financial loss. “Probably most of them were available at that time, but now they are less expensive and people can acquire more information about them.”
Fire-resistant walls and roofs are only part of the solution, Quarles said. Maintaining an adequate space between buildings and vegetation is key to preventing the spreading of wildfires.
“If you ignore defensible space, the wildfire will produce maximum ember, flame and radiant exposures to your home,” Quarles explains in his article Home survival in wildfire-prone areas: Building materials and design considerations. “It is very unlikely that even the hardened buildings can survive such exposure as a weak link will likely exist in the building enclosure.”
“You have to take care of the big picture,” Kessler said. “If the surrounding wildlands aren’t controlled, everything you do in your home is a waste of time.”
A maze of winding roads
Many of the Oakland Hills roads are narrow and steep. That (along with the flammable landscaping) is part of the neighborhood’s charm. But the terrain, then and now, can make it difficult for emergency crews to respond quickly, especially if fire squads are trying to make their way up the hills while people are trying to evacuate on the same roads.
In 1991, fire trucks had to wind their way up steep, narrow roads to get to the fire in the hills. Residents trying to evacuate found themselves stuck on the winding roads, crowded with parked cars. Eleven of the fire’s victims died in traffic jams on Charing Cross Road.
“The width of the narrow roads hasn’t changed at all, “said Cheryl Miller, the executive coordinator for the Diablo Fire Safe Council.” That’s one of the reasons we emphasize being aware when there is a risk of fire. Up in the hills, to widen a road you would end of taking people’s homes and property. There is not an easy way to engineer to widen the roads.”
As for Kessler and Menell, the narrow roads still worry them. They spent weeks living in a friend’s apartment after the fire, their possessions in paper bags; then they rented, and reacquired nearly everything. Clothes. Dishes. Nailclippers. “It was like being a college freshman,” said Menell, with a short laugh.
And as they considered rebuilding, the narrow roads almost changed their minds. Eventually, they decided to stay. “It was something we didn’t want to be defeated by,” said Kessler. “And it was the only property on earth that we owned. Given our income, we couldn’t hope to get property elsewhere.”
Fixing the obvious mistakes
Water tanks in the Oakland hills emptied fast during the firefighting efforts. But the built-in pumps that normally kick in to refill these tanks had been destroyed in the heat of the fire, said Oakland Fire Department deputy chief James Williams. Other fire departments that came to help also had trouble connecting their hoses to the hills hydrants, which had 3-inch connections rather than the standard 2.5 inches. Emergency teams also struggled to keep in touch with each other on crowded radio frequencies that did not carry consistently through the hilly terrain.
Here’s how that played out at the Menell-Kessler house: Nancy Menell, up on the roof, desperately spraying the flames until the feeble stream of water from Menell’s hose trickled to a halt. There was nothing more she could do. It was time to move.
It was then that they began flinging everything they could into their car. Clothes, hats, underwear, tax forms, other important documents retrieved, the pet parakeet, the dog. “We left the cats behind, thinking they would be safe,” said Kessler. “That was obviously a mistake, we never saw them again.”
Twenty years on, Eileen M. White, manager of operations at the East Bay Municipal Utility District, now says EBMUD has portable pumps and flexible hose. There was a $189 million EBMUD seismic improvement program in 2008, said White, which focused on retrofitting water tanks, treatment plants and especially the Claremont Tunnel, which brings water into the area. If that tunnel were to be severed in a natural disaster, no water would get through, she said.
“We’re much more prepared today than we were 20 years ago,” said White. “We want to have water available first and foremost for firefighting.”
Hydrant connectors have now been standardized, Fire Department officials say, to the 2.5-inch size. They have also switched to a radio frequency that is accessible to fire departments across the region, making inter-departmental communication easier in the case of an emergency. Additionally, several fire departments and emergency task force agencies share codes, regulations and procedures for fire management.
Becoming a different kind of neighbor
The aftermath of the Oakland Hills fire pulled people together—neighbors, agencies, civic organizations. Residents meet to discuss and implement actions to improve safety in the area. They hold events to inform and train other residents on wildfire prevention. They sometimes oversee building or fire code enforcement in their neighborhood.
The fire turned David Kessler into a different kind of neighbor. “I was not particularly involved in the neighborhood before the fire,” he said. “Since the fire, a number of organizations started up. We worked with each other to try and figure out ways to deal with the problems we had about rebuilding, trying to teach each other about getting contractors and architects, and ended up having a neighborhood association which still endures.”
One of Kessler’s new responsibilities is participating in the Wildfire Prevention Agency’s District Advisory Board. He said citizens have also banded together to work with the city to make sure inspections of vegetation were done properly. They’ve gotten an emergency hotline installed. They organize community drills. They’ve seen to it that many of the utilities are undergrounded.
“We convinced the powers-that-be that we be treated as a new community, and not as an old one,” Kessler said.
These changes over the past 20 years have helped Kessler and Menell feel safer (their earthquake preparation kit is stocked up in the basement, too). “It’s inconceivable to me that if there was a fire, the response would be so poor as the last time,” Kessler said. “Personally, we feel much safer here, but we would even if nobody had done anything. It would take a long time for the fuel that was in this canyon to grow back.”
Infographic photos courtesy of the Oakland Fire Department.
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