Grass fire prompts evacuations in Oakland hills

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Royal Yearns got a phone call Tuesday afternoon.

“Look outside, there might be a fire,” his brother said.

“Sure enough, it was smoking outside,” he said. “So I got my stuff and walked down the hill.”

A four-alarm fire spread through the Oakland hills Tuesday, as Oakland Police Department officers evacuated an estimated 100 homes in the Monte Vista Villas housing development.

The report came in at 12:13 p.m. of a fast-moving grass fire on the old rock quarry on Edwards Avenue, said Darin White, interim fire chief of the Oakland Fire Department (OFD).

The department sent six trucks and two battalion chiefs and immediately upgraded the fire from a second to third, then to a fourth alarm, because of the wind speed and the steepness of the hill.

Oakland firefighters requested assistance from Cal Fire, East Bay Regional Parks and other local fire departments. Eighty Oakland firefighters responded to the scene. White said there were no damages or injuries.

“I was scared,” said Sharon Jimenez, a resident of the evacuated Monte Vista Villas development, speaking from the parking lot of the Kaleo Christian Fellowship church. Jimenez was at work at a methadone clinic on International Boulevard when a friend called to let her know about the fire. Since she rents a home in the area, she had to call her landlord for updates. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. Nobody was telling me anything,” she said.

Monte Vista Villas residents Ernie and Tracy Castillo, along with their daughters Sophia, 7, and Samantha, 4, had evacuated their home earlier in the day. By late afternoon, they had been allowed to return, but they were sitting on a curb on their street looking up at the rock quarry where the fire had broken broke out.

Ernie Castillo, a defense attorney, had been in court in Dublin working on a death penalty trial when people started calling him about the fire. “Oh shit, I got to go,” he thought to himself.

Meanwhile, his wife and daughters were on a school field trip. The whole family arrived home at 12:45 p.m. and Ernie said there was so much smoke it was dark from all the ashes. Tracy said they were the last people to be let back into the development by Oakland police and fire officials, who allowed them to take items from their homes; she grabbed photos and shoved some clothes into a backpack, not sure when they would be allowed to return.

“My Halloween costume,” Sophia chimed in as a reminder. “Mine, too,” said Samantha, as her mother laughed.

“Luckily we weren’t home, and it wasn’t night out,” Tracy said of having to evacuate. “I don’t know even know if it’s safe to stay here tonight.”

According to White, who spoke at a news conference around 4 p.m., the fire had been 60 percent contained by that point, and firefighters had established a complete perimeter around the fire.

The fire, which Mike Martin of Cal Fire estimated had the potential of growing to cover 50 or 60 acres, had been contained to 22 acres. Martin said that the flames were up to 10 feet tall. White said some of the challenges facing firefighters include steep terrain, high wind speed, and the height of the flames.

Later in the day, Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Nick Luby announced that the situation remained static, with containment at 60 percent.

Luby said that a night crew of three engine companies was arriving and would monitor the area and put out any hot spots, but that the department does not expect the fire to keep growing.

“We just need to keep working on putting crews in there and making sure everything is contained,” he said.

All residents of the nearby housing development had been able to return home by that time, but through traffic is still not allowed on Campus Drive, for the safety of the firefighters working to contain the fire.

Luby said the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

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