Monday was an anniversary of a Bay Area disaster marking 27 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake and today marks a tragic and scary day as well which began three years and two days after the quake. The Oakland Hills firestorm, which began with a small three-acre fire on October 19, 1991 that firefighters thought they fully extinguished that day, grew via some unextinguished embers into a raging inferno on October 20, which was a warm Sunday with some strong Diablo winds whipping over the ridge.
News footage above shows some of the harrowing first moments as people ran to evacuate from the quickly moving firestorm, some of them without shoes, some having to abandon their cars when traffic coming down the hills became too congested. Ultimately 25 people would be dead and 1,300 homes destroyed.
By some accounts, the fire exploded across the hillside and consumed multiple homes in just 15 minutes, overwhelming the firefighting effort which would also be stymied by inadequate and twisty roads (which are still there) and water mains that broke a problem that also afflicted the firefight following the Great Earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco. Also widely blamed for the severity of the blaze were dry, drought conditions and a preponderance of eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees (many are still there!) that went up like matchsticks, with the eucalyptus and its oily leaves sending embers flying downhill onto even more homes. As ABC 7 notes, "pictures don't do it justice," and fire officials have warned that conditions like those that existed in 1991 exist again following the last several years of drought, not to mention the all but complete reconstruction of homes on the same hillsides that burned.
The East Bay Times describes it saying, "Driven by the winds, swirling pockets of fire engulfed 790 homes in one hour. Overwhelmed communications systems meant residents were often on their own as they scrambled to find a way to get out amid thick, choking smoke and flying embers." Also they note that among the 25 dead were "Oakland fire Battalion Chief James Riley and Oakland police Officer John Grubensky, who were assisting people trying to evacuate on foot, perished in the early hours of the fire."
The documentary video below, by the National Fire Protection Agency, relates the history of fire in the East Bay hills, noting that similarly scary and destructive infernos occurred on the same hillsides in both 1923 and 1970.
Following the firestorm of 1991, a reported 30 percent of homeowners surveyed said they were not rebuilding as of 1992, however much of the property that burned 25 years ago has been rebuilt anew, and it's unclear if firefighters would be any better prepared to battle a blaze in this dense urban forest than they were then.
Here is more footage shot by an Oaklander on Stonewall Road, capturing the blaze at noon, he says, one hour into it, across Claremont Canyon. Around the 4:50 mark you hear the videographer and a friend talking about the 1970 fire and whether this is of the same magnitude, and he misremembers it at first as 1976.
Below is footage shot from the Embarcadero that day (it says October 19 but they mean October 20), showing smoke billowing over the Bay. Later in the video is footage that appears to be taken from Twin Peaks.
And finally, 14 minutes of footage from the very terrible 1993 TV movie, Firestorm: 72 Hours In Oakland, starring Jill Clayburgh (RIP) and LeVar Burton.