Reflecting on the Oakland hills firestorm's 30th anniversary and the lessons learned

To look at the East Bay hills now, it's hard to imagine the devastation that ripped through the area 30 years ago.

"I can still feel the heat of the flames as I fled," said Sue Piper, who lost her home on Hiller Drive that day.

One of 3,000 destroyed by a wildfire that also killed 25 people.

Piper chairs the Oakland Fire Safe Council. Its mission is to encourage residents to make their homes defensible against a wildfire.

"You are at the mercy of the least prepared neighbor. If that house doesn't have defensible space, the whole block is in jeopardy," said Piper.

Assistant Fire Chief Robert Lipp was an Oakland firefighter at the time.

"It was so overwhelming and so busy. We were just driving around until we could find something we could have a positive impact on," said Lipp.

Lipp said the fire department now has vehicles that are skinnier, better to navigate narrow roads.

"The smaller vehicles are more nimble. They also can pump water as they drive, versus having to be parked," said Lipp.

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Technology has brought better communication between the department and other fire agencies and between the department and the community.

"We are more proactive with what we do. We are putting patrols out more regularly during red flag warnings," he said.

The fire department says vegetation management by Oakland hills residents reached 93% compliance this year, the highest it has ever been.  

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But in an area so volatile, Piper says neighbors need to go beyond just complying.

"A lot of people, maybe they feel overwhelmed, but they are not ready to take that next step," said Piper.

Fire officials agree. But they see improvement.

"When you look through most of that hill area and threat zone, we are way better than we have been in the past," said Lipp.