‘This danger is one spark, one gust of wind, away.’ 30 years after tragic fire, Oakland better prepared but more at risk
on October 19, 2021
When Sheila Davies Sumner stepped out of her house in the Oakland Hills on the morning of Oct. 20,1991, she had a sinister feeling. It was seasonally hot but there was nothing unusual about this Sunday morning, except for a blast of dry wind.
She put her Siamese cat, Algebra, in the garden, then left for work.
Oaklanders later would recall the gusts from Mount Diablo, some 30 miles to the northeast, the Diablo wind. On that day, 65 mph wind pushed flames, from a small brush fire in the Berkeley Hills toward densely populated East Bay neighborhoods, causing the worst fire in the Bay Area involving loss of lives and properties since the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, and it was America’s most costly urban-wildland fire by that time.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Tunnel Fire, as it came to be known, that killed 25 people, injured 150 and burned 1,520 acres. More than 3,400 homes were destroyed and $1.5 billion in damages tallied ($2.56 billion in today’s dollars).
While emergency services and residents have become more vigilant in the years since the fire, the region is under even greater threat now, as climate change brings higher temperatures and drought, and neighborhoods affected by the fire become more developed. A regular occurrence and fear in California, wildfires burn millions upon millions of acres annually. The East Bay has been spared much of the devastation, which makes the Oakland fire a touchstone.
“It is our responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t happen ever again,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, at a recent event marking the anniversary. “We know that this danger is one spark, one gust of wind away.”
It started on Saturday, Oct. 19, as a 2-acre brush fire on the steep slope at the very end of Temescal. Firefighters from Oakland and Berkeley thought they quickly had it extinguished
The next morning, residents in the Claremont Hills neighborhood flooded 911 with calls about smoke. Emergency services told some not to worry as firefighters were already working on extinguishing a small fire. Fifteen minutes later, they were running down the hills as the flames swept through the only escape route by car, down Grand View Drive to Tunnel Road. The fire also jumped across Highways 13 and 24, enclosing many in the hot zone.
A federal report on the fire a year later would strike a somber note.
“The more important lesson is that the risks were recognized and the consequences were accurately predicted long before the fire, but nothing was done to mitigate the risks before the fire occurred,” concluded a 1992 report from the U.S. Fire Administration.
Preventing the next fire
In the aftermath, Oakland shifted its priority from disaster mitigation to fire prevention. It also prioritized vegetation control on private properties and offered training programs for residents in high-risk areas.
The City Council recently reported that 90% of private properties were compliant with vegetation regulations in the 2021 fire season (considered summer and fall).
Sue Piper, chair of the Oakland FireSafe Council, thinks 10% of noncompliance is still too much risk. She argues that the controls should be stricter as conditions have worsened:
“I just don’t want anyone to go through this again,” she said.
City Councilmember Sheng Thao, who represents Oakland Hills, has focused on fire prevention and is particularly concerned that not all utilities have been moved underground.
“The PG&E lines can cause a fire because of the old transformers that are in the Oakland Hills — those can explode and cause a fire itself,” Thao said, adding that those lines can also worsen an existing fire. The top of the hills is mostly free of hanging cables, but Tunnel Road, at the base of the hill, still has hanging cables.
In 2007, the East Bay Regional Communication System Authority was established as a repository of information for public agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, addressing a barrier that kept firefighters from launching a more unified response to the 1991 fire.
Furthermore, since then, the Oakland Fire Department has introduced technologies such as “Remote Automated Weather Stations” that provide live updates on temperature, wind and humidity changes, and “Forward Looking Infrared Radar” which pinpoints subterranean hot spots. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention has trained firefighters on how to use the new tools.
Firefighters faced many challenges with the Tunnel Fire. Flames knocked out power lines, making it impossible to recharge water reserves. Parked cars blocked access to hydrants and made it difficult to drive through the few escape routes. Dry vegetation, characteristic of the end of October, provided copious fuel for leaping flames.
Budget cuts in the previous decades had left the Oakland Fire Department outdated. The city hydrants were old models that didn’t meet the standardization established by the National Fire Protection Association in 1905, following the Great Baltimore Fire the previous year.
Oakland’s 3-inch hydrants couldn’t accommodate the 2.5-inch hoses used by firefighters from other cities and counties coming to help. Only in 1995, did Oakland install adapters on all its fire hydrants to change the coupling size to 2.5 inches.
Similarly, each municipality used different radio frequencies to communicate, which meant units coming from other cities or counties were unable to relay their positions to local firefighters and provide a coordinated response.
“The radio traffic was so overwhelming that most messages went without acknowledgements and many were never heard,” the 1992 report said.
‘It was so sudden’
Patrick Sumner and Sheila Davies Sumner were away from their home on Doris Place that Oct. 20. He was working in San Francisco and she was auditioning people in Oakland for a radio drama she was producing. Noticing the orange sky and realizing there was a fire, Davies Sumner jumped in her car.
“I knew specifically what I wanted to get: the letters that my parents had exchanged during the war,” she said.
Davies Sumner got as far as the foot of the hill. All the cars were streaming downhill, honking at her. “Wrong direction,” they yelled. She made a 180-degree turn to find flaming branches across the road she had come from just seconds before.
“There were no authorities. There were no police, there were no firefighters. It was so sudden,” she said.
Davies Sumner was born in that house. Her father bought the land, just under an acre, upon his return from World War II in 1948 and had built a small wooden house. Davies Sumner made her parents’ home her own in the 1980s, settling in with her husband, Patrick.
A few days after the fire, they returned to the remains of their property. Their bedroom “was a familiar rectangle with no walls,” Sumner said. Only the brick chimney remained standing in what used to be the living room. The first thing Davies Sumner saw at the top of the driveway were the metal file cabinets where she kept her parents’ love letters. There were only ashes.
The Sumners said the Tunnel Fire should never have grown so large. “It was negligence on the part of the fire department,” Davies Sumner said.
Many of their neighbors agree, though the 1992 investigation merely concluded: “Several leads were pursued relating to accidental or negligent causes for the original fire, but no definitive determination was made.”
The risks could have been significantly reduced had vegetation and outdated equipment been addressed, among other things, the fire protection community had highlighted, the report said. “There are political and economic reasons why these recommendations have not been implemented,” it stated, without elaborating on the reasons.
“Would I like to be able to go back and do Sunday differently? For sure,” said Robert Lipp, assistant chief of the Oakland Fire Department, who had just completed his firefighter training in 1991. “But I wouldn’t go to the level of negligence.”
Lipp was off that Sunday but volunteered to work like a lot of others.
He got worried when he noticed spot fires, which meant: “a lot of fire, in a larger area, more rapidly.” And those worries compounded when he was in the field, with a shortage of equipment.
The fire would burn for another three days before firefighters brought it under control.
The Sumners were hesitant to rebuild. For a short time, they lived with family in New Mexico, on flat, deserted, safe terrain. But Davies Sumner decided to not give up her father’s land.
On her weekly walks, she has noticed that there are more houses than before the fire, and they’re closer together. Recently, the Sumners walked down the hill, pointing out strips of land that they remembered as buffers but that now have houses.
Oakland as a whole had more than 27,200 new residents 10 years after the fire. The population has increased since: There are 25% more people today than 30 years ago, more than 433,031 residents.
The Sumners like to think that their cat, Algebra, ran away on Oct. 20, 1991, though they never saw him again. Their rebuilt house is bigger and more fireproof — the ground floor is 10% concrete, 90% decomposed rock, but the upper floor is wooden, in a tribute to the original construction. They moved in for good in 1997. A new cat, Satie lives with them.
Satie rushes out of the house as soon as they open the backdoor in the morning. She favors a chair that overlooks the once-charred slope now full of houses, plants and life. The scene folds into the Oakland landscape, and then, the ocean.
This story was updated to correct the names of Patrick Sumner and Sheila Davies Sumner.
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