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Communications & Coordination: What has public safety learned from the Oakland Hills Fire?

Author: Dave Larton

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-10-24
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Last weekend was the 20th Anniversary of the Oakland Hills Fire, one of the largest and most destructive fires in California History. 

On Saturday, October 19, 1991, the Oakland (CA) Fire Department responded to a small wildland fire that had broken out in a box canyon near the eastern bore of the Caldecott Tunnel.  Initially comprising about seven acres, firefighters gained control of the blaze and, leaving their hose lines in place, checked the area for hot spots throughout the evening and into the next day.  Little could they have known at the time that this small fire would progress in the next 72 hours into a conflagration involving the largest loss of life and property in the last 85 years.  When it was all over, what began as the ‘Tunnel Fire’ became the ‘Oakland Hills Firestorm’, costing 25 lives, and destroying over 3,000 homes.

The original fire itself was relatively small in size, at least by California firefighting standards, involving a little over 1500 acres.  However, that small area was impacted by a large number of residences that had crowded over the years into the urban-wildland interface of the Oakland Hills.   Many homes had built up a large amount of brush and undergrowth nearby, and the picturesque neighborhoods were hampered by narrow access roads and a diminished water supply.  When added to high temperatures and a offshore flow of dry air, gusting at times to 58 miles per hour, the area became a ‘perfect storm’ for a huge wildfire.

A rekindling of the original fire the following morning  brought the large Mutual Aid response from Bay Area agencies, and a Unified Command structure was established between the Oakland Fire Department and departments from Piedmont, Berkeley and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now known as CalFIRE).

As evacuations began to take place, the small access roads in the area quickly became jammed with residents trying to find a way out, and fire apparatus trying to gain access to the fireground.  At one point, the Fire Command Post had to be relocated as the fire threatened to overrun its position.

Communications rapidly became strained, with large amounts of channel-loading making Mutual Aid and interagency communications difficult.  Fire companies using Oakland Fire’s Channel Two requested direction upon their arrival on scene from Fire Commanders, but the channel was soon so crowded that many requests went unanswered.  Oakland Fire’s alternate Channel One, used as the department’s main fire dispatch frequency, was tied up with other fire traffic, including at one time a working structure fire.   Fire Commanders, unable to gain overall situation awareness on the radio, began to self-assign their apparatus as best they could.

Staging area for the Oakland Hills Fire.

In the Oakland Fire dispatch center, dispatchers had difficulty engaging outside lines for help, as the lines were quickly saturated with residents attempting to call into the Center.  The hilly terrain made point-to-point radio communications difficult, and there was a shortage of Mutual Aid channels available.  Fire personnel resorted to calling Dispatch on their cellular telephones.  A lack of common police/fire mutual aid channels made evacuations difficult.

San Francisco Fire, without a direct Mutual Aid channel of its own to Oakland, maintained contact with its own Dispatch Center, requesting a communications unit, water tenders and other apparatus to respond directly to Oakland.  Eighty five San Francisco firefighters responded by bus across the Bay to reach the fire.

As water supplies quickly became exhausted, firefighters were forced to assume defensive strategies along four different fronts of the fire, picking which homes were salvageable and which would be left to burn.   Power outages in the area caused pumping stations and reservoirs to shut down, and fire hydrants began to run dry.  Agencies began using engines as water shuttles to bring needed water to the area. The high winds caused homes to be consumed at a rate of almost 800 homes in the first twenty four hours of the incident.  (That’s a rate of 33 homes per hour at one point).  A total of 88 Type 1 Engine Strike Teams were ordered (440 engines) from throughout the State of California.

As the winds began to later die down, firefighters began to gain control over the fire.  Assisted by six fire retardant- dropping air tankers, six helicopters, eight communications units and over 800 law enforcement officers, the area was declared  contained by the following Tuesday, October 22nd.  The final toll estimated the loss of life at 25 persons, 150 others injured, over 10,000 buildings either damaged or destroyed, and the total cost of the blaze exceeding one and a half billion dollars.

Composite panorama of Staging Area at Tunnel Fire Base Camp

Twenty years later, the Bay Area is continuing to struggle with its desire to build a common Emergency Services communications system.  While Oakland has developed an 800 Mhz system, not all neighboring agencies have the ability to immediately gain access to the system.  Other Bay Area agencies have chosen to build their own proprietary systems.  While CalFIRE has made substantial progress in the development of a statewide narrowband communications system, other fire agencies remain on VHF wideband systems for the immediate future, due to a combination of budgetary constraints, terrain and equipment difficulties and political concerns.  Fire communications will rely on traditional interoperability solutions such as the patching of channels, trading of handheld radios and cross-banding for the immediate future.

New fire safety regulations have changed the roof composition of the rebuilt area homes, and Oakland Fire has purchased several offroad engines to patrol rural areas during the fire season.

Night time fire activity. Photo taken by a San Jose Fire company on structure protection assignment near the Claremont Hotel.

Can it happen again?  The following quote says it best:

“From the experience of the earlier stages of the fire, in which flying brands started new centers of conflagration blocks ahead of the burning buildings at which the firemen were working, it is the consensus of opinion of those at the fire, including Chief Officers and firemen, that had the wind not changed, the fire would have swept through the entire East Bay Region.”

It’s an excerpt from a report on another Oakland Hills Fire… in 1923.

Associate Editor Dave Larton has been involved with public safety for 35 years, 15 of them in dispatch.  He is currently the State ACS Training Officer for the Auxiliary Communications Service,Telecommunications Branch of the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA). He also serves as the Deputy State RACES Officer for the state Radio Amateur in Civil Emergency Service (RACES) program.  A nationally known dispatch instructor, Dave continues to provide training and consulting services for dispatchers and PSAP managers through First Contact 9-1-1.

U.S Fire Administration Technical Report Series TR-060 October 1991.
Report by Captain Donald R. Parker, Oakland Office of Fire Services, January 1992.
National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Initiative “The Oakland/Berkeley Hills Fire,” 1992.




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Posted by: dsprain
Date: 2011-10-30 19:51:34
Company: Nevada Dept of Wildlife
Title: Public Safety Dispatcher III
Subject: remembering the East Bay Fire

I worked for the Berkeley Police Dept Comm Center as a PSD back then, on nightshift. I was called in to work and remember driving over I-80 from Vacaville in to Vallejo. Coming over the hill, I could see the thick, black smoke cloud - and I still had a thirty minute drive to Berkeley! Once I exited the freeway in Berkeley, the sight was unreal - even though it was day tiem, the smoke was so thick it was dark as night in the city ezxcept for a reddish glow in the hills. Signing in at work, we had calls stacked for the fire service. The only other time I can recall us stacking fire calls was after the Loma Prieta quake. After the fire was out, I went up with an officer on a ride. It looked liek a nuclear bomb had gone off. Co-workers lost homes up in those hills. I'll never forget that fire as long as I live.

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