Officials mark anniversary of Oakland Hills Fire

City of Oakland leaders Monday marked the 24th anniversary of the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills Fire by reminding people to be prepared and take measures to prevent fires from spreading.

Speaking at a news conference at the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center near the Caldecott Tunnel, Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said people should have at least 30 feet of defensible space between their homes and trees, shrubs or wildland around it to slow or stop the spread of wildfire and protect their homes.

Reed also said people who live on narrow streets should leave room for fire trucks to pass so that firefighters can respond quickly to blazes that occur.

East Bay Regional Park District General Manager Robert Doyle echoed Reed's message, saying, "Give us defensible space" around homes.

Doyle said, "People should manage their properties or we could end up with another devastating fire."

The fire - which began on a small scale on Oct. 19, 1991, and then erupted the next day into one of the worst urban wildland blazes in the nation's history - killed 25 people, injured 150 others and destroyed 2,843 single-family dwellings as well as 437 apartment or condominium units.

Among those killed were Oakland police Officer John Grubensky and Oakland fire Division Chief James Riley, who were helping people evacuate.

Much of the worst damage occurred in the area near the Caldecott Tunnel, including the Hiller Highlands development on top of the hill.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said her father was one of those who lost their homes at Hiller Highlands but he was able to evacuate safely.

Schaaf said, "To see an entire neighborhood reduced to a few dots of chimneys felt like something out of a science fiction movie."

She said people like her father had to "replace everything."

Schaaf, who said she was in law school in the Los Angeles area at the time of the fire, told reporters that her father was uprooted for several years, first living with her sister in San Leandro and then in hotels and renting a house until he finally returned to Hiller Highlands.

Schaaf said new people who have moved into the fire area many years later have to be alerted about the danger they potentially could face.

"We need to do everything we can so we don't see that type of fire again," she said.

Reed said people should keep the 1991 fire in mind because the Oakland hills and surrounding areas are now facing a high fire danger due to warm temperatures and strong winds.

Reed said, "Quick notification is the key. Make sure fires are contained, be mindful of where you park and call 911 immediately if you see something."