Eucalyptus

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.

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A scene from the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. Photo courtesy of the Oakland Fire Department.

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.

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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.

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Since the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, the homes in the neighborhood have become larger and range in architectural styles.

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.

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20 years after the Oakland Hills Fire, city officials and residents reflect on what has changed and what still needs to be done. Photo courtesy of Oakland Fire Department.

On October 19, 1991, the tiny flame that would become the Oakland hills fire was ignited. The ensuring wildfire, which lasted for several days, took 25 lives, consumed over a thousand acres land, and destroyed more than 3,500 homes. On the 20th anniversary of the fire, Oakland North takes a look at 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.

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A fire engine at the Oakland Hills fire station, which opened its doors to reporters for a reenactment of the 1991 fire.

The firefighters put on their headphones, fastened their seatbelts, turned on their lights and sirens, and peeled out of the garage towards the narrow, steep road. With notepads and video cameras in tow, reporters were getting a feel for what it was like to ride in a fire truck during the massive fire that devastated the Oakland Hills 20 years ago.

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Firestorm Memorial Garden

Vandals sawed off eight branches of a commemorative sculpture in Oakland’s Firestorm Memorial Garden Thursday. The bronze monument, dedicated to the victims and survivors of the worst fire in Bay Area history—the Oakland hills fire of October 20, 1991—symbolized the eucalyptus trees that were decimated by the fire but would blossom again years later.

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