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Thirty years ago, on Oct. 19, 1991, a grass fire ignited near the Oakland-Berkeley border. By the morning of Oct. 20, it had erupted into a firestorm that quickly spread through the East Bay Hills, becoming one of the most destructive fires in U.S. history. It destroyed over 3,500 homes, forced the evacuation of about 10,000 people, and took the lives of over two dozen more.
To mark the 30-year anniversary of the fire—formally known as the Tunnel Fire because of its proximity to the Caldecott Tunnel—we produced a 30-minute podcast, featuring interviews with people who witnessed and fought the blaze, along with archival sounds, which looks back on those fateful hours and examines what has changed—for better and for worse—in the three decades since.
Below, you can view some of the archival materials we used in the podcast along with photos of some of the individuals whose voices we featured.
Standing at ‘ground zero’
Homes have since been rebuilt along the mountainous East Bay slopes that burned during the ‘91 Firestorm, but weather conditions today aren’t much different than they were when the fire tore through the hills. That’s why those impacted by the fire, from residents who lost loved ones to the firefighters who did what they could against near-perfect wildfire conditions, work to prevent a blaze like it from happening again.
Dee Rosario, then a lieutenant with the East Bay Regional Parks District Fire Department, was one of the more than 1,500 firefighters to respond. He described the fire as “rumbling like a freight train” as he and other first-responders quickly learned there was no way to stop the blaze from being pushed by strong Diablo Winds.
Documenting the destruction
As their neighbors fled the flames, some hills residents brought out their home video cameras to document the historic event, including when the flames whipped over Highways 13 and 24. The footage below was captured by Jim Pire using his 8mm camera.
All told, 25 people lost their lives including an Oakland fire battalion chief and a police officer. Another 150 people were injured, and 3,500 housing units were lost across more than 1,500 acres burned.
Sadly, the Bay Area’s fire conditions have only worsened since then. Climate change, another year of drought, and the resulting millions of dead trees have left the East Bay hills vulnerable to another disaster.
Preparing for the next fire
To find out what lessons have been learned in the 30 years since the Tunnel Fire, we first reached out to the North Hills Community Association, one of many groups born out of the fire’s ashes. Along with the Oakland Firesafe Council and other groups, NHCA advocates that residents do their part to be prepared for the next big fire, from hardening their homes to knowing their evacuation zone number.
NHCA founding members Sue and Gordon Piper were among the thousands of people who lost their homes in the fire. Their names are now synonymous with fire prevention in the East Bay due to their efforts to educate and prepare fellow residents.
Doug Mosher manages the Oakland Firesafe Council’s Community Preparedness & Response Program, which gives Oaklanders tips and tools to be fire safe. We interviewed him for the podcast in Joaquin Miller Park, where a tree was recently on fire.
Commemorating the tragedy
Some of the firefighters who responded to the ‘91 firestorm continue to serve their communities. Former EBRPD Fire Department Lieutenant Dee Rosario has been serving on the East Bay parks board since 2016. And Robert Lipp, who reported for duty as an Oakland firefighter after being near the genesis of the blaze, is now Oakland Fire Department’s deputy chief.
Lipp, Rosario, and the Pipers were among those recently at a remembrance ceremony at the Rockridge BART station in North Oakland. There, decorated tiles commemorate what was lost in the fire.
Left: OFD Deputy Chief Robert Lipp was one of about 1,500 firefighters who responded to the ’91 firestorm. Right: Oakland Fire Chief Reginald Freeman speaks at a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the blaze. Credit: Brian Krans
Elihu Harris, Oakland’s mayor in 1991, also attended the remembrance ceremony. He said even after watching smoke darken the sky and fire race down Highway 24 that day, Oakland soon showed its true colors.
“I had no idea how devastating, how incredibly difficult, the days ahead would be. But what I wanted to tell you is that what I saw in Oakland is what I’ve always seen in Oakland,” Harris said. “That was, we came together as a community. People came together.”
Reggie Freeman, Oakland’s current fire chief who was appointed to the position in May of this year, said he purposely made his home in Hiller Highlands, one of the neighborhoods badly damaged by the ‘91 fire.
“As someone new to the community, I felt an obligation to put myself in that place, the epicenter of the firestorm, to always keep the issue of wildfire prevention, as well as preparedness, at the top of my mind, not just for me, but for my beloved family, as well as the Oakland Fire Department family.”
On the day of the fire in ‘91, after the rest of his family was evacuated, Russ Aubry rode out the firestorm from his home, the highest structure in Berkeley, and directly above the fire’s origin.
His property would soon be home to the “Tree of Hope,” a monument of lights created as a shining beacon in a blackened part of the East Bay.
How to learn more and be prepared
Want to learn more about the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm? These are some archival and information resources that were helpful in reporting this story:
- North Hills Community Association’s “Community Comeback” series
- FEMA Report
- East Bay Parks 20th anniversary report
- Jim Pire’s 8mm footage
- Tristan Tonn’s home video
- ABC7’s video from the scene of ignition
- KTVU’s Rob Roth’s reporting from the scene
- KTVU’s nightly newscast