Oakland's Calamity

October 22, 1991

If the fire that swept through parts of suburban Oakland is any example, disaster loves anniversaries. At least in California. The wildfire, which authorities believe grew from a flareup of a small brush fire extinguished Saturday, blazed through dry canyons and hillsides parched by five straight years of drought. It struck three days after the anniversary of the deadly 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which killed 63.

This conflagration was less deadly -- an estimated 10 people died, including a fire battalion chief and a policeman -- but far more costly. Officials say it burned 1,300 acres, destroyed 600 buildings (most of them affluent homes) and caused $1.5 billion in damage. The families whose homes and lives were torched will need much consoling, counseling and help.

Blazes that burn whole neighborhoods are not unknown in the eastern United States. The great Baltimore fire and the tenement fires of New York and Chicago are still remembered. But people in suburban and semi-suburban areas, with houses built on large lots surrounded by trees, shrubs and wide lawns, usually feel safer. Even in California, authorities noted, people knew of Los Angeles' Santa Ana winds, but did not expect such continuous blasts -- up to 36 mph -- in the north.

All that was changed by the steady, parching winds of the last several days, driving a fire which leaped 50 feet into the air, jumping highways and flashing tree to tree, roof to roof.

What remains, after the cleanup, is a reassessment of how to contain such blazes. California, which led the nation in developing earthquake-proof construction standards, must now look to improving fireproofing standards. Reporters watching the Oakland blaze rip through neighborhoods said they could hear electric transformers bursting into flame as heat exploded the cooling oil kept inside. Could less flammable oils be used? Authorities warned Oakland residents about fumes from artificial building materials and furnishings burning in their homes. Could less toxic, less burnable materials help slow such a blaze?

Droughts cannot be prevented. And California keeps getting more crowded. Thus, as forestry aide Karen Terrill put it, "this fire is the fire of the future in California." That sad prognostication must be met with renewed efforts to alleviate the tinder-box conditions within houses that helped make the Oakland blaze one of California's worst fires since San Francisco burned in 1906.

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