Lessons from the Wind-driven Oakland Fire

No way to navigate the narrow streets because of traffic, and with the speed of fire, people were trapped in their cars in Oakland Fire.

(Editor’s note: In this 2014 story, Station 69 Captains worried about a wind-driving brush fire.)

With Southern California experiencing its worst dry spell on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pacific Palisades firefighters are preparing for the possibility of a destructive brush fire in the local Santa Monica Mountains this fall.

“It could be this year, it could be next,” said Station 69 Captain Daniel Rodriguez. “No one knows when, but it will happen; and there is so much dead fuel on the hillsides, it will come through like a tornado, quick and hard.”

“When the winds are blowing, all bets are off,” said fellow 69 Captain Mike Ketailly, referring to firefighters’ ability to respond to embers that travel as fast as the winds.

The Oakland fire in 1991 was a deadly example of how an extreme wind-driven fire can wreak havoc. One news site reported, “The winds were so intense, and the area was so dry that within an hour close to 800 buildings were on fire: the fire destroyed one home every 11 seconds. In some places, the temperature reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Firefighting efforts were constrained by the fact that the affected homes were located on steep hills with very narrow streets. An important factor in the rapid spread of the fire was it was at an interface between developed and undeveloped land.”

Rodriguez calls the Oakland fire an “historical fire” because typically every 20-25 years there is a big fire in similar areas: for example, the 1961 Bel-Air ire (484 homes were lost, 191 damaged), the 1978 Mandeville Canyon fire (30 homes were destroyed including St. Matthew’s Church) and the Topanga/Malibu fire in 1993 (268 homes destroyed).

“Seven years ago, more than 1,000 homes were lost in the San Diego Witch fire,” Rodriquez said. “The number of residential units lost has gotten bigger because if you look back to the 1960s, there weren’t so many homes in the hills. Now they’re intermixed into the undeveloped land. The population density is now three to four times higher than it was. The next time we get a historic fire, the loss will be off the charts.”

In the event of a brush fire approaching the hillsides above the Palisades, could the embers reach the Village? “Yes,” said Rodriquez, who noted that “a wind-driven fire is predictable: it is headed from the mountains to the beach.”

Highlands residents are especially endangered because they have one way out–Palisades Drive–the Lachman Lane fire road is reserved for fire/police vehicles and closed off to residents trying to escape.

“Get out early,” Rodriquez warned residents.

Rodriquez was asked about the person we always see on television with a hose, trying to put out a fire at his house. Not a good idea. In the Oakland fire, Rodriquez said, homeowners did not have water pressure because so many water pipes burst from the fire. Also, many homes had wood-shingle roofs that were particularly susceptible to fire—it took only 10 minutes in some cases for a house to be brought down by the flames.

On the 20th anniversary of the Berkeley fire, the Berkeleyside paper ran Deirdre English’s story. “We only got as far as the corner. I swung to the left, and saw nothing but dense black smoke and shooting embers ahead. I backed up and tried going to the right. The hillside on both sides of the road was aflame, and burning branches were falling onto the street. We had to run.

“Two other cars containing neighbors also stopped and emptied. Now there were nine of us bolting towards the only way left to escape. It was downhill, down the upwind side of the hill. There was no path, just a steep open field of dry brush. To my horror, the hillside had already erupted into flame not more than 15 feet away. Now that I had witnessed the speed and fury of the firestorm, I know that in moments we could be engulfed.”

In addition to adequate brush clearance, plans for pets, and knowing what you need to load in a car at a moment’s notice, Rodriquez advises, “Don’t get stuck in traffic, especially in a wind-driven fire.”




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