30 years since the Oakland Hills firestorm

This week marks a major milestone in Bay Area history.

Tuesday will be the 30th anniversary of the devastating firestorm that tore through the Oakland and Berkeley Hills.

Officially known as the Tunnel Fire, the blaze that broke out near the Caldecott tunnel, was one of the most devastating fires in the nation.

It began on a Saturday, a small fire that grew into a conflagration we now call a firestorm.

Within days, 25 people were killed, and thousands saw their homes reduced to ash.

In the 30 years since, homes and lives have been rebuilt, but the fire has left a permanent scar.

A block of homes in the Oakland hills represents a small fraction of the more than 3,000 dwellings that have risen from the ashes of the 1991 Oakland/Berkeley Hills Firestorm.

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It’s a tragedy Sue Piper will never forget.

"My family lost our home in 1991. We had to escape the fire. It was a harrowing experience. It was surreal. It was like being in the movies only it was real and it was hot," said Sue Piper.  

Piper is secretary of the North Hills Community Association, a sponsor of Sunday’s 30-year Firestorm Commemoration Picnic at Oakland's Lake Temescal, where people gathered to reflect on the fire's impact to the community, where they rang a bell and read the names of each of the 25 lives lost.

"The city of Oakland lost two of our family members.  We recommit ourselves to doing everything we can to prevent these tragedies from striking again," said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Schaaf and other officials like Oakland’s new fire chief spoke about the importance of prevention and togetherness.

Chief Reginald Freeman says a lesson learned is the importance of having defensible space of thirty feet around one’s home, something the department and many homeowners take seriously.

"We come out. We do our annual inspections. I'm proud of the fact that we have 93% compliance this year. That's the highest percentage we've had in years," Freeman said.  

Homeowner Michael Zatkin can attest to the department's dedication. 

"The city comes by and checks at least once a year to make sure that the brush is cleared a certain amount of distance from the homes," said Zatkin said. 

Zatkin lives in one of the many rebuilt homes.

He was a mere teenager when his mother’s home was swallowed by the fire.

"I mean, it looked like a war zone. There was nothing left in the entire neighborhood but chimney’s," said Zatkin.

Aerial photos on display at the commemoration reveal the massive swath of scorched earth where about 2,800 homes and 400-plus apartments were erased from the landscape.

The event motivated Piper to dedicate her life to preparedness, with an emphasis on educating the sizable number of newer residents who weren’t around and lack appreciation for what happened.

For those who witnessed the event first-hand, the memories from 30 years ago are still fresh. 

"It's been a while, but it does in some ways seem like yesterday. Yeah, because it's such a, it's seared into your memory, something like that.  To lose, to lose a home," said Zatkin.

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED: The North Hills Community Association has an area on its website called Community Comeback - Then and Now. There you will find several compelling interviews with survivors and others, including KTVU’s own, Rob Roth, who was reporting on the fire just as it began to explode.