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Looking Back at What Went Wrong 30 Years After the Tragic Tunnel Fire

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Thirty years ago today was pretty unremarkable in the East Bay. It was a breezy Saturday, hot by Oakland’s standards at about 83 degrees. By all accounts, it was a beautiful day to be out. We didn’t know then that there was a monster lying in wait. 

There had been a 5-acre grass fire up in the Claremont Hills on Buckingham Drive, right up against the green space that separates the neighborhood from Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Crews from the East Bay Regional Park and Oakland fire departments knocked it down pretty quickly. That relatively small grass fire didn’t make much of a dent in the news that day, but it would soon become one of the most consequential and analyzed fires in state history. 

What happened, and what didn’t happen, on that Saturday led to one of our greatest local tragedies. The Saturday fire, as it turns out, was never fully extinguished. East Bay Regional Parks firefighters were told to head out and assumed the Oakland crews would monitor the situation and ‘turn the duff,’ but they instead left the scene without making sure the hotspots were put out. Basically, the ground was still smoldering under a thin layer of vegetation.

The Diablo winds kicked up on Sunday and reignited the surrounding brush around 11 a.m. — the canyon topography acted as a wind funnel, amplifying the gusts. Within an hour, the fire had already burned hundreds of homes and jumped both Highway 24 and Highway 13. It reached the edge of Piedmont to the south and passed Claremont Avenue to the north by 5 p.m.. The Tunnel Fire goes by different names — the Oakland firestorm of 1991, East Bay Hills fire, Oakland Hills fire — but regardless of what it’s called, it’s a day we will never forget, nor should we.

A stone fireplace remains where a living room once stood before the 1991 Tunnel Fire in the East Bay Hills on Oct. 20, 1991.

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When all was said and done, 25 people had died, another 150 were injured and close to 3,500 homes and apartment units were destroyed. In the course of one Sunday afternoon, the majestic Oakland Hills were turned into a smoldering graveyard of melted cars and ash, with sporadic stone fireplaces marking spots where living rooms once stood.

I’ve done a lot of research for larger stories on that event, and on California fires in general, but my recall of that day is personal. I remember it well because I watched it erupt, though it took years to process what it was I saw. I was barely 15 years old, and a friend and I had decided to go tripping around in the city. We hopped on BART in Concord and made our way. There wasn’t much to note while we were still on the east side of the Caldecott, but by the time we made it through the tunnel and looked back at the hills to our right, we saw a hellscape of flames jutting up into the sky. It happened that fast.

I’m fairly certain we were on one of the last westbound trains that made it through the tunnel before BART stopped running in the area.

My aunt had a house up there years before and I remember wondering if it would be damaged — but that’s pretty much the extent of my concern at the time. Remember, I was all of 15 and there was no real way of comprehending the level of destruction in store. We kept going and spent the day doing dumb teenage stuff in the city as planned — it was hours before we realized what was really going on.

There were no cell phones with internet service, no Twitter, no news updates or emergency alerts blaring in our back pockets. If your butt wasn’t firmly planted in front of the evening news or next to an AM radio, you could remain pretty ignorant to what was going on around you. I’m not reminiscing for simpler days — I say all that because it illustrates a point about a major problem that day. The lack of warning and information access was not just inconvenient, it was deadly for people in those hills.

Decimated trees above a destroyed neighborhood after the East Bay hills Tunnel Fire of Oct. 20, 1991. (Courtesy of Cal OES)

But as it turns out, that was just one of many detrimental problems that posed challenges for both firefighters and the residents running, some literally, for their lives. A whole host of problems and infrastructure inadequacies exacerbated the fire’s impact. Hydrants did not have universal fittings. The water district lacked the ability to keep flow pressurized up the steep terrain. The vegetation was especially dry following a five-year drought.

The evacuation was an absolute mess with vehicles bottlenecked at the bottom of the hill, making it so that people at higher elevations had nowhere to go. Flames flanked both sides of the windy and narrow roads at several points. In desperation, some people ditched the cars and took their chances on foot, running as fast as they could away from the inferno burning in multiple directions.  

Despite the relatively small 1,500-acre burn area, the 1991 Tunnel Fire is still considered one of the state’s most costly wildfires, totaling $2.6 billion adjusted for current inflation. Unlike most massive wildfires we see today in rural areas and forest lands, the blaze in the Oakland Hills was fueled by a combination of dry vegetation and dense neighborhood homes. 

Thirty years later, some of the problematic response issues have since been addressed by fire departments, and weather and water districts, but evacuation routes remain woefully inadequate and basic risk factors have only increased with climate change. 

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.

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