The October 1991 Oakland-Berkeley hills fire, also known as the East Bay Hills Fire, Oakland hills firestorm, The Tunnel Fire (by Cal Fire), and simply The Hills Fire, killed 25 people, injured 125 others, and destroyed over 2,800 single family homes. To this day, its memory understandably makes some people fearful about the threat of another wildfire in our beautiful, forested East Bay hills.
That destructive fire, in fact, fomented the creation of the Hills Conservation Network. A group of residents—including several whose homes were destroyed in the fire, and one whose aged mother was trapped by and killed in the fire—were motivated to get involved. They were determined to cut through the inevitable politics and bureaucracy to publicize the truth of the fire’s origin and causes. Without accurate and honest analysis, effective corrective measures couldn’t be taken to prevent a recurrence of such a catastrophic fire. Some of these citizens went on to create the Hills Conservation Network to share this information with future generations. READ: WHO WE ARE
Several official reports about the 1991 Hills fire were commissioned and released in 1992, including the Berkeley & Oakland Mayor’s Task Force, one by FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Agency), an agency the federal government, and a third by the former Chief of Fire Prevention of the Oakland Army Base, David Maloney. Two additional reports will also be referenced later: one by the U.S. Forest Service in September of 2018, and another by Fire Science Lab researcher Jack Cohen.
Each and every of these reports agree on many critical facts, including these:
• the fire began on Saturday, October 19, 1991, as a grass and brush fire in the Berkeley hills northeast of CA routes 24 and 13. It was extinguished by firefighters and then they left the area by nightfall. But the next morning, Sunday, October 20, 1991, (“Diablo”) winds from the east kicked up embers below the crust of charred and dampened grasses during firefighter’s mopping up operations—and these embers re-ignited the fire. Fanned by the steady winds, the flames quickly spread, to more dried autumn grasses, brush, and trees—and houses;
• trees per se, including eucalyptus and pine trees species, were not of particular significance in fueling the blaze;
• houses burns hotter, and create greater volumes of embers (aka, firebrands in fire science terminology) and airborne burning debris than any trees. Those showers of firebrands ignited other houses with combustible (e.g., shake) roofs and gutters littered with pine needles and other fine fuels. Linnea Edmeier, a retired firefighter for the wildland firefighting agency CALFIRE, produced a documentary, “Burn,” about the 1991 fire while getting her master’s degree in journalism at UC Berkeley. She said, “Homes are fuel. When the homes are so close together and they are covered in brush, they are going to burn.”
• the fire became a firestorm, meaning it generated its own heat-driven winds and weather;
• the East Bay hills’ steepness, narrow roads with too many cars blocking fire truck access, a shortage of water, and hydrants lacking universal hookups (so any district’s truck could access any hydrant) all contributed to the blaze’s burning beyond containment.
Driven by steady winds it became over the next two days, Sunday, October 20th, Monday, October 21st, and Tuesday, October 22nd, the most destructive “Wildland-Urban Interface” (W.U.I.) fire in California history until then, with an estimated $1.5 billion in damage in 1991s dollars; over $3.5 billion dollars today.
MORE on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakland_firestorm_of_1991
Despite huge and courageous efforts by hundreds of firefighters, inadequate planning and infrastructure for a fire of this ferocity contributed to the catastrophic result.
Not all fire hydrants had been quickly, universally accessible (as more have been made since). Not all water pumps were undergrounded and impervious to wildfires (as they are now). And many houses made few or no recommended preparations for wildfire mitigation (e.g., removing tree branches and flammable dry vegetation from roofs, gutters and around the bases of houses, and clearning no “defensible space” fire experts routinely advise.
READ NBC News detailed report of the fire: https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Remembering-the-Oakland-Firestorm-132282138.html
However, in the years and decades following, some “native” plant extremists have distorted the truth or simply lied about the Hills fire to blame and target specific species of trees they have wanted for years to cut down—by the tens of thousands—for purely aesthetic reasons. Fear of another 1991 Hills Fire could be exploited and targeted tree species could be scapegoated.
Not content to simply plant trees and plants they prefer, some (but not all) native plant advocates advocate cutting thousands of healthy trees, claiming they pose a unique fire danger, despite no scientific literature supporting this claim. Trees are treated like weeds in a garden, and a weed is itself a term without botanical definition. It means simply a plant one does not want in the garden. But in the Oakland and Berkeley forests, the “weeding” of trees is done on a colossal scale with chainsaws, bulldozers clearing acres of healthy forests over 100 years old. Even toxic pesticides are regularly applied to unwanted plants and stumps of cut trees to prevent their re-sprouting. In the two decades since the Hills Fire, extensive deforestation has been done in the name of “fire danger mitigation” when in fact deforestation increases fire danger in the East Bay Hills because forests increase the moisture of a hillside and are harder to ignite than smaller plants.
Tragically, this persistent strategy of cutting down disliked tree species has been adopted by groups and agencies as diverse as The City of Oakland, East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD), UC Berkeley, and even the Bay Area chapter of the venerable Sierra Club. All, for instance, routinely use and endorse the use of poisonous chemicals by companies including Monsanto (maker of Roundup) and Dow Chemical (maker of Garlon formulations) despite overwhelming Bay Area public disapproval of such practices.
Monterey pine, acacia and eucalyptus have been erroneously blamed for the size or ferocity of the 1991 Hills fire, despite these trees having no more significant role in the fire than other trees species. A far greater contributor to the blaze was the quick ignition of houses themselves, which were more flammable with their dry lumber, paints and solvents, gas lines, etc), and burn hotter than trees.
Healthy trees of any species, rather than being fire hazards, provide not just prodigious ecological service, but reduce the overall temperature of a landscape and dramatically increase its moisture content and fog generation and resulting annual fog drip.
Trees of all species sequester carbon in our current era of anthropogenic climate change, stabilize steep East Bay (and Bay Area) hillsides, and create shade that cools the land especially in our hot, dry summer and autumn, and harbor more wildlife than so-called “native” chaparral. In fact, chapparal like coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) is more flammable than trees and is in fact pyrophytic, meaning it has evolved to not only survive fire but benefit from it.
If you’ve ever heard eucalyptus trees described as “flammable,” “hazardous,” or “dangerous,” this is a claim without scientific basis, an example of how a lie repeated often enough by people with an entirely different agenda than wildfire mitigation can become believed as truth.
In fact, California bay laurel trees contain more “volatile” (aka “essential”) oils than do eucalyptus trees. Bay trees also grow closer to the ground so they can be more easily be ignited than taller, stout-trunked eucalyptus trees by grass and chaparral fires common in the hills. So bay trees could be labeled more “flammable” than eucalyptus or some other tree species, but this misses the larger point that all living trees are more resistant to ignition in a wildfire than grasses and smaller plants without thick, fire-resistant trunks.
Pine and eucalyptus, like redwoods, bays and oaks all burned in the Hills fire, and therefore all generated firebrands—as did houses and other structures that burned. Human judgment, including by homeowners, and poor fire preparedness planning were more responsible for the fire’s catastrophic result than trees were. All this is detailed in the aforementioned official reports on the 1991 Hills fire, available for interested readers, here:
VIEW THESE CRITICAL REPORTS on the 1991 HILLS FIRE, and wildfire in general: