As autumn returned and the mercury hovered in the 90s in the Oakland hills, Milt Brown started to feel anxious.

Twenty years ago, on a scorching, wind-whipped day, he lost two houses in one of the nation's deadliest and most destructive urban wildfires, an inferno that jumped two freeways, destroyed more than 3,800 homes and killed 25 people, including the Browns' former baby sitter.

Although he tries not to dwell on the horrible memories -- or the chance of another devastating blaze -- Brown and other survivors of the Oakland hills fire worry that the painful lessons of that day are being forgotten. Or worse, they are being ignored by the many newer residents who didn't experience firsthand the hell of Oct. 20, 1991. Even the subtlest signs of danger make him nervous.

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"I'm looking at the two houses below me and the branches are touching the house," Brown said from his perch on Buckingham Boulevard -- less than a minute's walk from where the fire erupted on a hot Sunday morning. "I'm in a box canyon. If someone throws a match in there it will set the whole block off."

But it isn't just those who lived through the Oakland hills fire who are anxious about what they fear is a growing complacency that has built up alongside the stately homes in these steep, once-woodsy enclaves. Fire officials say that time has not only given rise to dense stands of fast-growing and fire-susceptible eucalyptus on public lands, it has also given vegetation on private property throughout the hills 20 years to mature. It often takes a second notice before residents take heed and clear a defensible space around their homes to protect it from fire.

In some neighborhoods, the once-frequent community fire drills are becoming less common. And Oakland's interim fire chief worries that newcomers who didn't experience the trauma of losing everything they owned won't be prepared to leave if flames start rolling up the canyons.

"What do I wake up and think about? The fact that people are complacent and are not prepared," said Mark Hoffmann, the interim chief who lost his own house in the blaze. "No matter what, there will be people who don't have food and water, or don't leave when they should, and get burned.

"I guarantee that everyone who actually lost a house is much more critical than others," he said. "They are the true believers. They are keenly aware of the potential."

Reasons to fret

History shows that hills residents have reason to be on alert. Wind-driven fires have ignited parts of the East Bay hills every few years, some with destructive results. In September 1970, a fire destroyed 38 homes, including at least one that was rebuilt and burned again in 1991. In December 1980, a fire in Wildcat Canyon destroyed six homes.

It wasn't until 1991, when the Diablo winds blew in from the northeast and stirred up still-smoldering duff from a day-old grass fire, that a blaze sparked significant change.

The firestorm destroyed 790 homes the first hour. Swirling winds inside the flames whipped up an inferno that reached 2,000 degrees, hot enough to boil asphalt and vaporize nearly everything in its path. The fire jumped two freeways and was headed to Montclair and Rockridge before the wind shifted late in the afternoon.

People who lived in the neighborhoods above Hiller Highlands had little or no warning and were forced to flee through swirling embers and thick, choking smoke. Most of the 25 victims, including an Oakland Fire Department battalion chief and an Oakland police officer, perished on those steep, narrow, twisting roads.

Click on image to enlarge.
Click on image to enlarge.

"I remember I was thinking strange thoughts, like I hope I survive this, and it's been a good life, but I'd sure like it to be longer," recalled Lorraine Force, 83, who became separated from her husband, Bob, and narrowly escaped a wall of flames during a frantic evacuation from their Buckingham Boulevard home. They found each other and fled down Tunnel Road, only to be stopped in their tracks when they reached Charing Cross Road and saw a woman on the ground, her dog standing over her. They saved the dog, but the woman had already died.

"She had her hands up as though a wall of heat had hit her," Lorraine said quietly.

Return to normalcy

Click on image to enlarge.
Click on image to enlarge.

After 20 years, peace and quiet have returned to the Oakland hills. The incessant hammering and whine of electric saws that filled the air 10 years ago is mostly gone. Cyclists ride up and down the maze of steep, winding streets that are just as narrow and hard to negotiate as they were before the fire. It's almost possible to forget what happened here, unless you lived through it.

Much of the critical infrastructure that failed the day of the fire has been repaired or replaced. Firefighters train in wildland techniques. Berkeley and Oakland have new fire stations in the hills, and each year fire patrols make sure property owners keep trees, vegetation and grass trimmed around their homes.

But all that means nothing if residents are not prepared to help themselves if another fire starts in the hills, said Jeffery Kahn, who, along with his wife, Alice Friedemann, lost his home on Contra Costa Road above Lake Temescal. The community bought hoses and trains with the Fire Department every year. Of the 160 to 170 homes Kahn leafleted, 35 to 40 people showed up for the training six weeks ago. It might not sound like much, but Kahn called it a good turnout.

"Here's the truth: Those of us who are still here on this street, the less than 25 percent who were here 20 years ago, we know what can happen," Kahn said. "The people who have moved into the neighborhood since the fire, they probably think we are kooks. I don't mean to say that everyone is dismissive. But it's hard to believe it can happen unless you've lived through it.

"It's evident (to us) that in a big emergency, there won't be a firefighter next to you."

Preparing for disaster

There is a natural divide among neighbors here, especially with so many focused on the anniversary of one of the Bay Area's most vivid tragedies.

It shows up when longtime residents such as Barry Pilger and his wife, Catherine Moss, remind newcomers like Maria Morales about fire preparedness.

"Do we get nervous? I don't get nervous," said Morales, who moved to the area in 2006 with her partner, Crystal Terry. Terry was forced to evacuate her former home in Oakland's Rockridge area during the fire, and the two say they have an emergency plan and are ready to flee if disaster strikes. "I know Barry and Catherine keep telling us we need to cut the pine tree in our backyard, and the lot (next door) has some eucalyptus. Maybe they worry more because they were here, and we don't worry as much because we weren't here. I know they mean well."

At least 30 percent of Oakland and Berkeley residents who lost their homes in the fire chose not to return. And now, 20 years later, many who did rebuild have moved on, or died. Only six of the 50 or so homes that were rebuilt on Buckingham Boulevard are occupied by fire survivors, said Pilger, a Realtor who rebuilt and moved back. Nine homes were not rebuilt, but 12 lots that were empty before the fire have sprouted immense homes that rise up hillsides or drop precipitously down steep slopes. Nearly every new home is larger and grander than the one it replaced.

Pilger maintains an online neighborhood forum and coordinates fire prevention training and block parties. Several newcomers participate regularly, but many stay away.

"Generally, the people who show up at neighborhood meetings regularly are there 20 years or more," he said. "There's a lot of complaining (among the newcomers) about wildfire prevention regulations."

Training dwindles

Lorraine Force said the neighborhood association bought extra fire hoses, stored them in lockboxes near the hydrants and gave out keys. But it has been three years since they held a training session with the Fire Department.

"We tried to educate the new neighbors as they moved in," she said, recalling the sense of urgency among her fellow residents who rebuilt after the fire. "We had a very active neighborhood association for many years, but it's sort of fizzled out at this point."

Aaron Trost moved to Bristol Drive four years after the fire. He said the neighborhood feels safer than those that escaped the blaze, which appear more vulnerable now.

"I thought this would be one of the safest places because they wouldn't let it happen again, especially if they didn't handle it right to begin with," Trost said. "They've passed all sorts of laws, require vegetation clearance, and on hot days they have patrols.

"There was a fire (in Hiller Highlands) a few years ago and the response to it was huge," he added. "They made it like a four-alarm fire; Berkeley, Oakland, everybody was on it. It was exactly what I was anticipating, that they would not let it get out of control."

Hoffmann, the interim fire chief, said the complacency that sinks in when things are going well or when memories fade can affect residents and firefighters alike.

"Right after the Loma Prieta earthquake I was involved with CORE (Citizens Organized to Respond to Emergencies). After about two or three years, (interest) started to die on the vine because there's not a big disaster," Hoffmann said. "Then, suddenly, after 9/11, more people want disaster training.

"We need to keep it going, have people out there who are beating the drum that this could happen again, because it will happen again. Last time it was (the fire in) Santa Cruz, but what will you do when it's you? What will you do when it's the city?"