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20 Years Later, East Bay Hills Less Susceptible To Firestorms

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A view of the 1991Oakland Hills firestorm. (DART/NASA Ames)

A view of the 1991Oakland Hills firestorm. (DART/NASA Ames)

DougSovern20100908_KCBS_0208r Doug Sovern
Doug began his career as a copy boy at the New York Times, and then...
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OAKLAND (KCBS) – Twenty years ago Thursday, a hillside fire blown out of control by hot, dry winds killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in the Oakland and Berkeley hills.

Since then, major improvements in firefighting have prevented another Bay Area firestorm, but after two decades there’s still work to be done.

In the first hours of the 1991 firestorm there was panic, chaos, confusion, clogged roads, a lack of water and firefighters from different agencies not sure who was where, and unable to talk to each other.

KCBS’ Doug Sovern Reports:

“We learned in a very hard and difficult way that disaster, and particularly fire, has no boundaries,” said Debra Pryor, who had just become the first female fire lieutenant in Berkeley history.

Pryor is the first woman to be fire chief, and is still working to acquire state of the art radio systems.

“We were inundated with radio traffic, in addition to having incompatible radio channels,” said Pryor.

The radios are better now, with more channels. In addition the different agencies have been integrated, but Pryor said that it’s still an ongoing process, and not everything has been resolved.

Oakland Battalion Chief William Towner said that most people learned from 1991, to clear their properties of flammable brush. Also firefighters learned to pour everything they’ve got onto any wildfire, and stay there until the last ember is out dead.

“There’s been tremendous progress from the standpoint of code enforcement and the resources that are provided to the firefighters to help stymie the incident early on,” said Towner.

Still, the roads remain narrow and winding and not much has, or can, be done, to fix that said Chief Pryor.

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“It continues to be a hurdle that is very slow to resolve because we have pre-existing conditions such as street widths, and there’s really not much that we can do about that except for prohibit parking in those areas, which becomes a very sensitive issue for community members,” said Pryor.

Peter Gray Scott, whose home burned down on Alvarado Road, killing his mother Frances, said that other trouble areas identified 20 years ago still haven’t been addressed fully.

“Water is still a problem, and air support is still a problem,” said Scott.

Also, because there are so many new neighbors who weren’t here for the firestorm, about ten percent are letting their weeds and brush grow to the danger level.

“It’s a loaded gun, all over again,” said Scott.

But battalion chief Towner said that thanks to better training and equipment, mutual response plans and incident management they’ve lessened the possibility, and the probability of a catastrophic event.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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