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More than two dozen firefighters from Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, and Cal Fire regional forestry service, all agencies that helped fight the 1991 fire, listen to speakers at the 20th anniversary remembrance ceremony.

Oakland Hills fire losses remembered with respect, ceremonial bells, safety fair

on October 23, 2011

Homes where families used to live, beloved pets left behind, helicopters flying low over the hills, words of gratitude and thanks, a phoenix rising out of the flames—these are just a few of the images that adorn the more than 2,000 tiles at the Firestorm Community Mural Project at the Rockridge BART station, which commemorates the victims of the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

Oakland residents gathered there Saturday morning in one of a series of events around the city organized to remember the events and losses of twenty years ago. Neighbors, friends, and fellow survivors assembled at the tiled memorial to pay their respect and express gratitude for a community that has come together and rebuilt in the years since the fire.

Marissa Kelley felt the smooth face of the tile she painted almost 20 years ago.  On it a blue iris is engulfed in tongues of flame, the initials MLH in the lower right-hand corner. A chalk drawing of the iris Kelley had made at school was hanging on the wall of her bedroom the day it was reduced to white ash in the fire. She was 13 years old at the time.

“I made it for an art class, we were studying Georgia O’Keefe,” Kelley said. “I wanted to show it going up in flames.”

Marissa, her brother Torin, and her parents Michael and Janice Holland had to evacuate their home in the Oakland hills to escape the fire that destroyed over 3,000 homes and took 25 lives.

It took a few minutes and some concentrated searching for the Holland family to find the tile they painted together. The red tile they finally located — low on the south-facing wall of the memorial — shows their old house at 5229 Cochrane Avenue, sitting in front of two large pine trees that once stood in their yard.

“We walk by this all the time, and never really notice it,” Michael Holland said, smiling and chuckling a bit. “But we know it’s here.” After the fire, the Hollands built a new home at the same address. The pine trees are gone.

About an hour later into the morning, community members joined Berkeley and Oakland city officials and more than two dozen local firefighters at a remembrance ceremony at the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center in the Hiller Highlands off of Tunnel Road. “This is a day to mark the journey we’ve made since the fire,” said Betty Ann Bruno, the longtime KTVU reporter who hosted the ceremony.

It was a beautiful, sun-drenched morning, and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, among others, addressed a crowd of more than fifty at the scenic Exhibit Center viewpoint overlooking downtown Oakland and San Francisco in the distance. Speakers focused on the changes that have been made over the past two decades to ensure that local agencies are properly prepared for similar emergencies.

“What came out [of the fire] was a spirit and a long series of reforms,” Quan said. “Oakland came out of it a stronger city.” Added Bates: “Hopefully we won’t have to do this again—but if we do, we’ll be ready.”

That readiness is vital, a fire official assured the gathered crowd.   “There will be fires in this area again,” said Mark Hoffmann, Interim Fire Chief of the Oakland Fire Department. “We really, really need to remain vigilant. Preparedness is key.” Hoffmann, along with Berkeley Fire Chief Debra Pryor, listed numerous ways their departments, working in conjunction with community homeowner groups and local officials, are now better prepared to handle fires in the Oakland Hills. Changes include equipment modifications, code reform, and streamlined inter-departmental communication. (Read more about the changes since 1991 in Oakland North’s coverage of the twentieth anniversary of the fire.)

A solemn bell-ringing ceremony, honoring the twenty-five victims of the fire who lost their lives, concluded the event. Firefighters from agencies involved in the efforts to fight the fire, including those in Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland, as well the Cal Fire regional forestry service, led a multiple-engine procession down the road to Lake Temescal Regional Park for a “Family Preparedness Fair” organized by the City of Oakland.

The tone at the park was noticeably more upbeat. Smokey the Bear was in attendance, as were food vendors serving up barbecued ribs and kettle corn. An Oakland Fire Department truck blared fire-related songs like “Burn, Baby, Burn” and “Jump into the Fire” as families with young kids walked around to the more than twenty booths handing out information about emergency services and prevention. Organizations on hand included the American Red Cross, Communities of Oakland Respond to Emergencies (CORE), Community Amateur Radio, Oakland Wildfire Prevention Project, California Earthquake Authority, and the United Policyholders Association, a group of homeowners that formed after the 1991 fire. Topics ranged from vegetation management to rainwater collection.

AnnaLee Allen, one of the coordinators who organized tile-painting workshops in schools and community centers that resulted in the Rockridge BART tile memorial, ran a booth that provided supplies for people to paint their own keepsake tiles like the ones many saw earlier that morning.

Sue Piper, a fire survivor and assistant to Mayor Quan, helped organize the days’ events. While she recognized the importance of honoring and remembering the past, she said, the day was meant as a “platform to raise awareness about emergency preparedness.”

“Two-thirds of the homeowners in the Oakland Hills didn’t live here” in 1991, Piper said. “The lesson is that we have to take care of families and neighbors, because we are only as strong as our weakest link.” Piper said the focus of the fair was to inform families, specifically those with young children who are new to the area and don’t know its history or what to do in an emergency.

Bill and Danielle Carlson, with their young son Arthur, attended the fair for that exact reason. They moved to the Oakland hills five years ago, and the twentieth anniversary of the fire, as well as the recent earthquakes, provided more than enough reason to attend. “I don’t feel like I know what to do,” Danielle said. “It really scares me.  The only way to lessen the anxiety is to learn what to do.”

Bill Carlson learned about free emergency preparedness classes put on by CORE that he is considering taking. He and Danielle also learned the proper way to use a fire extinguisher at a demonstration put on by Business Emergency Safety Training (BEST), an Oakland vendor that sells emergency supplies and offers trainings.

Bill—wearing a plastic fireman helmet—grabbed a large, metal fire extinguisher as four-foot flames shot out of gas stove as part of the demonstration. He aimed the nozzle, squeezed the trigger, and sprayed the fire from side-to-side just as he had been told. The fire died without a fight and Bill turned and walked back to his family with a smile on his face.

Danielle raised her hand to go next.


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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