Published October 30, 2003
OAKLAND, Calif. – John Ronan looks at the fiery images from Southern California (search) and he's sucked back into the hot, dry horror of the day urban wildfire (search) licked at the walls of his Oakland hills home.
"I get the same terrified feeling in the pit of my stomach," says Ronan. "There is nothing worse than the fire and the 25 people who burned alive."
Anyone would be horrified by the pictures of orange fireballs billowing across the landscape some 500 miles south. The fires have consumed more than half a million acres stretching from the Mexican border to the suburbs northwest of Los Angeles (search).
But Oakland fire survivors looking at the pictures have a unique perspective -- a good idea of what comes next.
"You find out that really what matters in life are your relationships and not the things that you lost. They're just things," says Sue Piper, who lost her house in 1991 and had to flee for her life in a mad car ride down the hill with her 9-year-old.
Memories of the Oakland fire are never far away, especially near the anniversary of the Oct. 20, 1991, fire that killed 25 people, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and caused an estimated $1.7 billion in damage.
Twelve years later, many of the homes have been rebuilt, some owners recreating what they had while others went for bigger and bolder. Still, a few empty lots gape like missing teeth on some streets.
Roads winding up the hills are still narrow. Some neighborhoods are very conscientious about brush control, but others, particularly in areas that did not burn, still boast houses with trees overhanging the roofs -- picturesque but ultra-flammable.
Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief James Williams says the city has learned lessons from the 1991 fire.
Back then, city officials were roundly criticized. The fire happened when winds kicked up smoldering embers of a brush fire thought to have been extinguished the day before, and the fire department's communication system was overwhelmed.
These days, firefighters are trained in battling urban wildfires and new weather stations give early warnings of "red flag" fire days. A modern communications system allows departments to talk to each other.
Controlling vegetation has been a continuing issue, though. In 1993, the city established an assessment district, charging hills property owners a yearly tax for fire suppression programs. Four years later, that was voted down.
Next month, voters will be asked to approve a new fire suppression district that would assess public and private property in the hills and raise about $1.8 million a year.
The wooded hills above Berkeley and Oakland have burned every decade going back to the 1920s. The issue is "not if it's going to happen but when it's going to happen and what the magnitude of the scenario is," Williams said.
"People are going to live where they want to live. Obviously, the fire department has no quarrel with that," Williams said. "The key here is it's about prevention. It's a comprehensive strategy in reducing fuel load."
A lot of vegetation can grow in 12 years.
Piper, who is working hard to get the suppression district passed, says many hills homeowners moved here after the fire and while some enthusiastically embrace the concept of fire prevention, others figure "they've had their fire. I'm safe."
As someone who has rebuilt a burned-out house, Piper says Southern California fire victims need to know it's a lengthy process, dealing with everything from insurance claims to new neighborhood zoning restrictions.
"What we found in 1991 was you had 10 jobs at once," she said.
Catherine Moss, another Oakland fire survivor, has two pieces of advice for Southern California fire victims. Be clear on what your insurance covers, but wait before making big decisions; let people take care of you.
"There is a classic grieving process that is set in motion by this kind of a catastrophic loss and you need to get through it," she said. "I moved into a serious clinical depression without knowing it."
This year's anniversary of the fire has been particularly jarring, with the devastation in Southern California, and in Oakland, the same kind of warm, gusty weather that fanned the 1991 flames.
"I woke up Sunday morning, I could hear the wind rattling the windows," Piper says. Before leaving the house she woke up her 16-year-old son to warn him, if anything happens, this is what you take with you.
The list: The dog, the computer, and the family photos, stored in a box by the back door for easy grabbing on the way out.
"It's been strange," she says. "Very scary."