Oakland Hills Fire: 20 Years Later
The Oakland Hills Fire may have started on the ground, but the Eucalyptus trees surrounding people’s homes in the Oakland-Berkeley Hills helped it burn more and spread even further. The highly flammable non-native species accounted for 70 percent of the energy released through combustion of vegetation during the fire, according to the National Park Service. Twenty years after the fire, Eucalyptus trees still surround many homes and live in many of Oakland’s parks, while residents debate whether they should be saved or removed as fire hazards.
Homes where families used to live, beloved pets left behind, a phoenix rising from the flames—a ceremonial visit to these hand-painted images, which adorn thousands of tiles at Rockridge’s Firestorm Community Mural Project, was one several Saturday events winding up the 20th anniversary week of the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills fire.
The 1991 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. OaklandNorth.net remembers the fire and examines what has changed in the past 20 years.
Twenty years ago, when Oakland Fire Department Captain Ian McWhorter was out on the burning hills, joining hundreds of other firefighters battling a blaze that took 25 lives and destroyed over 3,500 homes, he was dressed for battle with a structural, not a wildland fire.
The map shows the spread of the Tunnel Fire and infrared imaging of the burning hills taken by NASA’s DART satellite. The NASA Ames Research Center assisted firefighters in monitoring the movement of the fire, which was difficult to control due to extreme lack of visibility on the ground.
Explore our timeline of East Bay wildfires to learn more about some of the area’s worst conflagrations, as well as how a particularly dangerous weather condition called a “Diablo Wind” contributed to each disaster.
In the panic to escape the flames, many Oakland Hills residents faced the difficult challenge of choosing which personal possessions to take with them. Some saved practical items–clean underwear, tax forms. Some were left with just the clothes on their back, or random belongings thrown together.
On October 20, 1991, the hills above North Oakland and South Berkeley were prey to a three-day urban fire that destroyed over 3,500 homes and instigated a building revolution that permanently transformed the neighborhood for decades to come. Before the fire, the hillside was littered with small, older homes, some dating as far back as the 1920s and 1930s. But after the fire, the Oakland hills neighborhoods drastically transformed into a community of clashing architectural styles, innovative designs, and large, looming structures.
From a distance, standing on the windy ridge in Las Trampas Regional Park, the space-age contraption surrounded by a chain link fence looks out of place in the middle of swaying grass and a herd of grazing cows. But this array of sensors is playing an integral role in protecting this landscape. Remote Automated Weather Stations (RAWS) represent one of the biggest advancements in fire preparedness since the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire.