In the first hour of the 1991 Tunnel Fire, better known as the Oakland Hills Firestorm, one home burst into flames every five seconds. Sixty minutes into the deadly day, more than 700 homes had been destroyed.
By the late afternoon of Oct. 20, despite a frantic evacuation and the concerted action of 450 engine companies, 25 people died and more than 1,000 were injured. More than 3,000 residences were decimated.
When the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection identified areas within Lamorinda as "very high fire hazard severity zones" in 2008, Moraga-Orinda Fire Chief Randy Bradley made it a priority to call attention to the perilous conditions hidden beneath the beauty of Lamorinda's steep slopes.
Wednesday night's Lamorinda Wildfire Forum brought survivors and fire officials to the Orinda Library to commemorate the Oakland fire's anniversary and to introduced citizens to the steps the Moraga-Orinda Fire District is taking to address local hazards.
"That morning, I was the acting fire captain," said Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Capt. Rob Avina about his experience as a 24-year-old firefighter. "When I stepped off the engine, my helmet was ripped off my head (by the wind), even though it was strapped on."
He described it as a tsunami of fire and told of how he and his crew were forced to break into a house for food and water supplies during the long hours of battling the fire.
Santa Clara Unit Chief Steven Woodill said common communication frequencies and mutual training programs are two positive operational changes that came out of fighting the firestorm. The tragic fire system flaws revealed in 1991 also resulted in new state codes for building and improved state and county emergency management systems.
"On the day of the fire, it was my neighbor who called me, not the fire department," said Sue Piper, now special assistant to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. "It is the residents who carry the primary responsibility for making our area as fire safe as possible."
Chief Bradley, in an interview before Wednesday's forum, identified the most dangerous areas in Lamorinda as those with dense vegetation, steep hills, narrow roads and homes with combustible exterior components, like roofs and wood sides.
"While technology continues to improve our firefighting capabilities, a greater understanding of the science behind home ignition is something that has made the biggest difference," Bradley said. "A good example is a new appreciation for ember showers. Winds drive embers into areas where leaves and debris normally collect."
Older homes, especially those with wood shake roofs and open attic vents through which embers can enter the home and ignite an interior fire, are his department's greatest concern.
Bradley said other lessons learned from the Tunnel Fire have led to upgraded fire safety codes and practices. Open vents must now be screened or engineered to prevent ember intrusion; flame-resistant building materials are required in new construction; and property setbacks, landscaping, road access and water supplies must meet more stringent standards.
To ensure that current service levels do not suffer from the economic downturn and related budget cuts, the MOFD has reduced overhead, renegotiated service contracts, and utilized reserve funds.
But the only way to prevent a hazardous reoccurrence in Lamorinda is through collaboration between fire safety agencies and the community, Bradley insisted.
"Every day, as a fire chief, I worry," Bradley admitted. "With everything we know, if we get those north winds ... well, I don't sleep well at night. 'Get an assessment;' that's my message here tonight."
The Moraga-Orinda Fire Department's Firewise and Ready, Set, Go programs were developed to help prevent anything like the 1991 firestorm. As part of the Firewise Communities Program, the department offers a free home assessment for Moraga or Orinda residents. Twenty minutes with an evaluator provides a homeowner with a list of identified vulnerabilities and recommendations. If you live in Orinda or Moraga and want an assessment, contact the department at 925-258-4599.