On this day in 1991, a fire begins in the hills of Oakland, California. It went on to burnthousands of homes and kill 25 people. Despite the fact that fires had ravaged the same area three times earlier in the century, people continued to build homes there.
Fires had previously raged through the hills in 1923, 1970 and 1980. Each time, the fires occurred during autumn in a year with relatively little precipitation, and, each time, the residents rebuilt and moved back in as soon as possible. The deadly 1991 fire can be traced to a small fire at 7151 Buckingham Boulevard on October 18. Firefighters responded quickly and thought they had brought the blaze under control. However, heat from the fire had caused pine needles to fall from the trees and cover the ground.
When highly flammable debris, also known as “duff,” accumulates on the ground, fires can smolder unseen. At 10:45 a.m. on October 19, strong winds blew one of these unseen fires up a hillside; changing wind patterns then caused it to spread in different directions.
The winds were so intense and the area was so dry that within an hour close to 800 buildings were on fire. The wind then blew southwest, pushing the fire toward San Francisco Bay. In some places, the temperature reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, making it virtually impossible to fight the fire effectively. Homeowners attempted to hose down their roofs, but were often thwarted when water pipes burst from the fire. Also, many homes had wooden shingle roofs that were particularly susceptible to fire—it took only 10 minutes in some cases for a house to be brought down by the flames.
Firefighting efforts were constrained by the fact that the affected homes were located on steep hills with very narrow streets. This made it difficult to maintain radio communications and to move large fire engines close to the flames. The fire spread so rapidly that firefighters were unable to establish a perimeter. When the fire was finally contained the following day, 25 people had lost their lives, 150 people were injured and 3,000 homes and 1,500 acres had been consumed. The total tally of damages was $1.5 billion.
In the aftermath, authorities attempted to reduce the likelihood of a similar fire breaking out the in the future. Laws were changed regarding the maximum height of trees permitted and the type of vegetation that was allowable in the area. In addition, most homes that have been rebuilt do not have wooden roofs.