A personal tale: honoring heroic Oakland battalion chief who died in 1991

At the Firestorm Memorial Garden Thursday, Oakland firefighters and residents gathered to remember a fallen firefighter.

They dedicated a new bench in honor of Oakland Battalion Chief James Riley who died in the East Bay firestorm, Oct. 20, 1991.

"Anytime a public servant, particularly a firefighter gives his or her life in the line of duty they should be honored indefinitely. That's what we are doing today," said Oakland Fire Chief Reginald Freeman.

Minutes before Riley died, he rescued me from the fire along with my photographer.

We were in the hills covering the beginning, as the fire became a firestorm. It cut us off from our news car.

Riley's firetruck was the last vehicle to get out. He told us to hop on. Not long after he was killed helping a resident evacuate.

"It is something we in the fire talk about daily and we remember his sacrifice. Not just for the citizens but the rest of us as well," said Zac Unger, president of the Oakland firefighters union.

Standing in the dry hills, firefighters know what happened here 30 years ago could happen again.

Firefighters are set to begin inspecting 25,000 homes next week to make sure they are fire safe.

"What homeowners can do is make sure they have 30 feet around their home as pertains to vegetation," said Freeman.

Longtime resident Sue Piper lost her home in that fire.

"All that was left were foundations," she says.

Piper is concerned about all her neighbors taking the potential danger to heart.

"Anyone who was a survivor of the fire takes it seriously. Some of the newer people know they have to pass inspection but I don't feel they feel the urgency in their gut," says Piper.

In Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, the East Bay Regional Park District began a massive project to remove 200 dead trees over the next two months.

The park district has identified a thousand acres worth of dead eucalyptus, acacia, and pine trees which can make fires go from bad to worse in minutes.

"The leading theory is drought stress due to climate change along with the occasional endemic pathogen is probably what is sending these trees over the edge," said EBRPD Fire Chief Aileen Theile.

EBRPD says it hopes to get additional money to remove many more of these dead trees which burn hot, fast, and can spread burning embers.