Conditions that contributed to the Oakland Hills fire 25 years ago re-emerge
For Jim and Veronica Harris, the morning of Oct. 20, 1991, in the hills just above Oakland, Calif., was hot, dry and ominously windy. From the third-story balcony of their home on Estates Drive, they watched as a tall cloud of gray and black smoke marched steadily toward them. Soon, they began to see pine trees literally explode from the heat. “We looked at it and turned to each other and said, ‘This doesn’t look good,’ so we started packing,” said Veronica Harris, a retired nurse and speech pathologist who now lives in Denver.
For more than 3,000 homeowners in Oakland and Berkeley, whatever they could pack quickly — photos, heirlooms, pets — would be the only things that would survive. The Oakland Hills fire of 1991 is still California’s most devastating wildfire.
It burned only 1,600 acres (just under three square miles) but killed 25 people — including an Oakland city police officer and an Oakland Fire Department battalion chief, while nearly a dozen residents died along Charing Cross Road in the hills above the Caldecott Tunnel when they were caught in their cars by the fast-moving fire. The damage was estimated at $1.5 billion, in 1991 dollars ($3.4 billion today). It was also one of the worst firefighter nightmares: a “rekindle” of a small grass fire that had occurred the day before, and was thought to be out, but reignited and then was spread by high winds.
Veronica Harris was one of the lucky ones; her house on Estates Drive survived after the wind changed direction to the north, away from her home. Others in her neighborhood wouldn’t be so lucky. “It was like a World War II movie, just bombed out, with just chimneys standing,” she recalled. But in some places, she would see one house intact, surrounded by devastation, she said. “How did everything around it burn and this one house is still there? It was just unbelievable.”
Still, Harris remembered that, even as the fire was out for several days, bits and pieces of smoldering debris, like a burned section of a mattress, or even pieces of charred children’s toys, kept falling from the hazy skies. Even San Francisco 49ers fans, watching Steve Young and Jerry Rice demolish the Detroit Lions at Candlestick Park by the score of 35-3 that Sunday, felt ash falling on them as the game progressed.
After the Oakland Hills fire, change for homeowners in the most vulnerable neighborhoods took time. Untreated wood shake roofs and side shingles were eliminated in most new construction, replaced with fire-resistant stucco or treated wood. Ember-resistant venting was created to prevent hot embers from burning through mesh exterior coverings and igniting fires inside homes.
And California homeowners were required by state law in 2005 to create a 100-foot zone of clearance. No flammable vegetation was allowed within 30 feet of a home, while in an outer 70-foot zone brush had to be cut back so that fires couldn’t spread easily from the ground to trees. The 2005 law was enforced by fines from local fire departments and CALFIRE, the state’s wild land firefighting agency.
After the 2005 law went into effect, the number of wildfires declined by half in the five years that followed, from about 4,900 fires in 2005 to about 2,400 in 2010, according to CALFIRE.
But “fire millionaires” were also created: People who found that, because of the high cost of construction and the replacement value of their homes, they could take their home-insurance windfall and build even larger homes, often all the way to their property lines. Most homes in the hills before the 1991 fire were built in the 1920s and 1930s nestled among the trees and consisted of colonial, French and English-style cottages with just two or three bedrooms. “After the fire, most homeowners used the opportunity to make their homes bigger and grander,” said Harris.
Soon, Mediterranean- and Tudor-style homes with five and six bedrooms and three-car garages were constructed, and local home values soared. The median value in 1991 of homes in the Oakland hills was about $300,000 before the fire. But by the time homes were rebuilt in the mid-1990s, the median value had soared to more than $700,000. Now most homes in the area are valued between $1 million and $4 million, according to local property listings.
Others chose not to rebuild their homes and sold their charred land at inflated prices to buyers who also built larger homes. One example is the Felton Estate, a 14,000-square-foot property built five years after the fire destroyed all the homes atop a peak in Oakland known as Schooner Hill. The house, built in 1996, recently sold at nearly $21 million.
Even if risk-elevating trees are cut down, the homes will still remain, and while the local fire departments added fire stations in the hills, as well as new reservoirs and improved radio communications, the large size and proximity of the new homes to each other is the primary concern.
“Homes are fuel,” said Linnea Edmeier, a retired firefighter for the wildland firefighting entity CALFIRE who later produced a documentary, “Burn,” on the Oakland Hills fire while getting her master’s degree in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. “When the homes are so close together and they are covered in brush, they are going to burn.”
For others, a sense of complacency has taken hold in after 25 years. Despite frequent warnings and even fire-department fines for Oakland and Berkeley residents, many homeowners continue to let dangerous brush accumulate next to and atop their homes, especially during California’s historic five-year drought. In 2013, the number of wildfires in the state rose to its highest level since 2006, with close to 3,700 fires, according to CALFIRE.
“People don’t think about these things because they haven’t experienced it,” said Diane Beatty, regional vice president for insurance broker NFP Private Client Group in San Francisco. She was recently shocked, she said, when one of her clients in the Bay Area opted, without consulting her, to put an extremely flammable wood shake roof on a new-construction house.
Beatty said most insurance companies have raised premiums as a result of the continued threat, and some insurers have stopped writing homeowners insurance in some of the highest-risk areas in the Bay Area. “If the home is located in a cul-de-sac where there’s only one way in or out, or you live more than five miles from a fire station or more than 1,000 feet from a hydrant, it’s going to be very difficult to get insurance,” Beatty said.
She noted that one client in Elk, Calif., near Mendocino, recently saw her homeowners insurance jump from $4,000 to $16,000 a year. “Even though she’s got two 600-gallon water tanks on her property, the insurance companies want nothing to do with her,” Beatty said.
Beatty said that some insurers of high-value homes, including AIG AIG, -0.81% and ChubbCB, -1.04% , have gone so far as to contract with private fire-suppression companies such as Red Lodge, Mont.–based Wildfire Defense Systems or AIG’s own Wildfire Protection Unit to spray Phos-Chek, a gel retardant used by the U.S. Forest Service on homes if a wildfire comes close. But the private fire departments have to work with state and local officials so they can make no guarantees about being able to protect a home in an emergency situation, she said.
And disagreements continue over how to best combat nonnative tree species like pine and eucalyptus, which proved so dangerous in 1991. In 2015, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency over its plan to spend more than $5 million to thin the nonnative species rather than eliminate them completely. In response, FEMA last month withdrew much of the money that would have been given to the city of Oakland and the University of California at Berkeley to help cut down flammable vegetation.
Mary Simms, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said the funds are still being made available to the state for mitigation. “The money remains with the state so that all of the original funding for these grants can go toward fire-hazard reduction in the East Bay hills,” she said in an email. Still, UC Berkeley said that, without the federal funding, fire-mitigation efforts on the 800 acres of undeveloped land it owns will be delayed and possibly not completed at all.
“FEMA’s decision is inexplicable and makes the hills area more fire dangerous, which is contrary to what they’re supposed to be achieving,” said Norman La Force, chair of the Sierra Club East Bay Public Lands Committee. “The people who made this decision in Washington, D.C., won’t be around for the next big fire, and there will be another great fire.’”
See CALFIRE’s checklist on how to help harden your home against the threat of wildfire.
This story was updated on Oct. 18, 2016.