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As 30th anniversary of Oakland Hills Firestorm nears, we haven’t learned from what we know
oakland hills fire
The Alvarado Ridge after it was destroyed by the Oakland Hills Fire in 1991.

It’s almost the end of the water year.

In abnormal times Oct. 1 would have ushered in the worst of the fire season.

It’s a time when much of California has little rain save for occasional summer showers in the higher elevations.

But these are normal times.

Set aside the talk about man accelerating climate change for a minute, and what you see in Valley skies isn’t all that abnormal.

Mega-droughts based on solid science have been the norm for most of the past millennium. Debate all you want but tree rings don’t lie. They get wider on an annual basis with life giving moisture in abundance and they compact when water is scare.

Dendrochronology, the study of tree rings, aided by carbon dating has well documented the fact roughly from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s have been abnormally wet in what is now the western United States.

The knowledge is nothing new. It has been well documented and published for the better part of the last 70 years. And, based on what researchers we know that compiled the data, it has been shared with political leaders.

But given the general arrogance of man that is only sharpened in the egos of those that govern as if they hold the answers, it is of little surprise warnings have been ignored.

Twenty-four days from now marks the point in the modern history of Northern California that we got the first real taste of the end result of the toxic mix of urban encroachment in wild lands, modern fire suppression policies involving wildfires, and buying into the myth being good stewards of the land with absolute adherence to rigid “thou shall not” touch vegetation rules.

It starred with a simple grass fire in the hills above Oakland where the vegetation was thick and dry as the Bay Area was slipping until deep October. It was a fire that was thought extinguished after being contained to five acres but a few undetected embers survived. Within hours that “extinguished” fire came roaring back to life.

On the evening of Sunday, Oct. 20, 1991 those looking slightly to the northwest from South San Joaquin County saw an eerie orangish red glow on the horizon forming a surreal backdrop to Mt. Diablo.

The Diablo winds — the relentless dry high velocity winds in the Bay Area that are the kissing cousins of the Santa Ana winds of the Los Angeles Basin — had gusts being clocked at 65 mph. The fire started generating its own winds. Combined with the Devil’s wind it morphed into a firestorm spewing embers in all directions.

By the time a small 5-acre almost extinguished grass fire that had started Oct. 19 and rekindled itself was finally out four days later. Twenty-five people were dead, 150 injured, 2,483 single family homes destroyed, and 437 apartment units burned.

The total loss in 2020 dollars was $2.65 billion.

The area burned was pegged at 1,520 acres, a little more than 1,000th the amount of acres burned so far this year in California wildfires.

Leaders overseeing the aftermath practically tripped over each other with their back slapping saying how they had put in measures to prevent it from happening again. Those measures ran the gamut from vegetation management and tougher fire rules for rebuilding entire neighborhoods right down to making sure fire agencies all had universal fire hydrants throughout California so hose couplings would work anywhere.

Blame PG&E for starting its share of deadly wildfires with faulty and aging equipment as they should be, but there is a greater culprit at work here.

It’s called the lack of elected leaders to take reasonable steps to reduce the potential for wildfire losses.

The biggest step that has never been taken is making sure urban interfaces with wild lands don’t set the stage for massive wildfires. The more infringement into wild land zones with housing the more wildfires you have.

It is worsened by the lack of natural thinning of underbrush and such by lightning caused fires that have been fought aggressively as California’s population grew and development turned small bergs in the mountains into sizeable towns such as Paradise.

It was made worse by swinging the pendulum too far to correct decades of destructive clear cutting by implementing policies that eschewed any type of vegetation thinning.

To be clear, if Gavin Newsom had started deploying the National Guard the day he took the oath as governor to accelerate thinning efforts to reduce fire fuels it likely wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

It’s because the mess we have today started back when Earl Warren was governor and Harry Truman was president and modern wildfire suppression was in full swing.

It was made worse as the climate in California started to edge back to normal as nature returned to its predictable miserly precipitation. At the same time the aftermath of World War II saw a significant acceleration in population growth and zoning that pushed more and more people into known fire zones.

And in the run up to massive fires in recent years, periods of drought ravaged forests making trees more susceptible to disease and pest infestation to prime trees as gigantic matches ready to explode when touched by flames.

Newsom is on the right track with stepping up fire prevention efforts on wild lands.

But the best solution to reduce future infernos is to stop creating more fuel for fires.

And that means either stopping new urbanized growth in fire zones as defined by those areas where geographic and historic conditions make them the most vulnerable to wildfires, or allowing limited growth with stringent development protocols that aggressively minimize fire risks.

What those protocols are should be left up to the wildfire experts and not the development bureaucracy.

We know steep areas with high winds are asking for trouble.

We know drought is the normal which means trees and vegetation that already are going to be stressed during late summer and fall will be nearly bone dry for years on end when they are simply struggling to survive during periods of drought.

We know thinning forests helps reduce the size and potential for wildfires.

We know the more people and houses we place in fire zones it means diverting more manpower to saving lives and property making initially attacking a wildfire a lower priority.

We know all this and more of what is making wildfires bigger and more destructive with each passing year.

Yet we can’t answer the real question: When will we learn?


This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at