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Photos from the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm

October 20th, 2011, will be the twenty year anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm of 1991.  The fire has also been called the Oakland hills firestorm, the East Bay Hills Fire, and the Tunnel Fire (because of its origin above the west portal of the Caldecott Tunnel) in Oakland. The fire ultimately killed 25 people and injured 150 others. The 1,520 acres (6.2 km²) destroyed included 3,354 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units. The economic loss has been estimated at $1.5 billion.


The fire started on Saturday, October 19, from an incompletely extinguished grass fire in the Berkeley Hills northeast of the intersection of California State Routes 24 and 13 (0.5 mi (0.8 km) north of the Caldecott Tunnel east portal). Firefighters fought the 5-acre (20,000 m2) fire on a steep hillside above 7151 Buckingham Blvd., and by Saturday night they thought everything was under control.

The fire re-ignited shortly before 11:00 am on Sunday, October 20. It re-started as a brush fire and rapidly spread southwest driven by wind gusts up to 65 mi (100 km) per hour. It quickly overwhelmed local and eventually regional firefighting resources. By 11:30 a.m., the fire had spread to the nearby Parkwoods Apartments located next to the Caldecott Tunnel. Shortly before noon the fire had been blown up to the top of Hiller Highlands to the west from where it began its sweep down into the Hiller Highlands development and the southern hills of Berkeley. The fire tossed embers from the burning houses and vegetation into the air as it went. These embers were swept away by the torrid winds only to float back to earth to start the blaze in new locations. Half an hour later, these embers enabled the fire to jump across both Highway 24, an eight-lane freeway, and Highway 13, a four-lane freeway, eventually igniting hundreds of houses in the Forest Park neighborhood on the northwest edge of the Montclair district and in the upper Rockridge Neighborhood. The fire eventually touched the edge of Piedmont burning some municipal property, but the buildings and houses were spared.

The hot, dry northeasterly winds, dubbed by the media at this time as “Diablo winds,” periodically occur during the early fall season, similar to the Santa Ana winds in Southern California, and have been the cause of numerous devastating fires. The fire began generating its own wind, the defining characteristic of a firestorm. The self-generated winds interacted with the ambient wind to create erratic, dangerous gusts, which in turn helped produce numerous cyclonic swirls. All of these combined to help spread the fire, tossing embers in all directions. By mid-afternoon, the wind had slowed and shifted to the west, driving the fire to the southeast. At about 9 pm, the wind abruptly stopped, giving firefighters a chance to contain the fire.

By Wednesday October 23, at 8:00 am the fire was declared under control, almost 72 hours after it started.


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Photo Source:  Time Photos

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