Oct. 18--Because it moved with terrifying speed, the Oakland Hills fire is still legendary years later for its destructive force.
The fire's power was so great that a house went up in flames every 11 seconds in the tragedy's first 10 hours, according to the California Department of Forestry.
As the 22nd anniversary of this fire approaches, Roy Pike still shudders to think of the massive destruction the blaze wrought, plus the incredible challenges firefighters faced in getting it under control.
A Solano Community College professor of fire science and technology, Pike said there is still much to learn from the ire, which started Oct. 19, 1991, killing 25 people and wiping out more than 3,900 houses and businesses.
Toward that aim Pike is assembling a large conference to try to answer how much fire departments and local government agencies learned from the blaze, and if they are prepared for a similar event.
"What we need to do is take the lessons learned and see how we are doing 22 years later across the board," said Pike, who administered California Forestry Department response from his Santa Rosa office during the 1991 fire.
Slated for January, the conference will examine lessons learned from the fire, considered, at the time, one of the worst in California history.
Local fire chiefs and emergency personnel, plus representatives from cities, and counties are being invited.
Pike said he wants to focus on the challenges that firefighters, police officers and others faced in the Oakland Hills fire. They included the inability of some agencies to communicate with each other, accumulation of dried vegetation and streets too narrow for fire trucks to navigate. Fire prevention and planning will also be discussed.
Chief of fire prevention and law enforcement for state forestry's department northern California division at the time, Pike said the Oakland Hills fire was rightly dubbed "the fire of the future." That's because it brought into play all the challenges of fighting a massive grassland fires in a modern, residential setting.
Strong and erratic winds combined with dry conditions allowed the 1991 fire to jump easily from house to house and across freeways. In some cases, as flames approached, houses exploded from the inside due to the intense heat.
For the conference, Pike said he hopes to get retired City of Oakland incident commander Eugene Dick to attend and talk about what it was like to be on the front lines that night.
The fire began after firefighters extinguished a grassfire near the Caldecott Tunnel. But, strong winds the next day whipped embers from that fire into the air and new flames spread quickly.
Winds clocking as high as 25 mph acted like gasoline blowing embers to neighboring houses and trees, igniting them. The shifting nature of the strong winds prevented firefighters from getting it under control expeditiously.
Thousand of firefighters from throughout California responded, and once winds subsided they were able to contain the fire two days after it roared through the hills, burning down legions of houses, destroying vehicles and injuring many.
Pike said several chief lessons can be learned from the fire. Those include not using firefighters to evacuate residents and requiring better fire breaks around houses and buildings.
Finally, he said controls should be put on the planting of junipers and eucalyptus trees and other trees which can dry and ignite quickly.
Perhaps, most importantly is the need for law enforcement and fire agencies to keep up strong lines of communication, Pike said.
During the Oakland Hills fire, some used different radio frequencies and could not talk to one another, he said.
Other challenges firefighters faced were narrow streets, dwellings built extremely close to each other, and lack of water, Pike and others have said.
"Logic and experience tells us that it (a major fire) will happen again, maybe in the Oakland hills," Pike wrote in materials for the course.