§ Until modern times city and country had always shared fires. American cities were typically rebuilt forests and burned with the panache and patterns of their surroundings. Countrysides were shaped by the demands of cities, both near and far, with slashed landscapes more prone to explosive fires. The same winds blew over both. The same logic of protection led each to prevent errant sparks, build firebreaks, and quench flames quickly.
During the frontier era, the two realms blurred. Then each matured and the fire scene calmed, as conflagrations disappeared from metropolis and were harnessed into the tamed rhythms of rural burning. More recently, in what might be termed a pyric postmodern phase, an outmigration of urban folk has begun recolonizing the countryside. This new frontier broke down the firewalls that had separated urban from wildland fire. The intermixing stirred by sprawl occurred everywhere, but it happened with particular vehemence in California, and most spectacularly, it burned. Urban fire returned, like an ancient plague once thought extinct and now revived in a more virulent mutation. City and countryside had to cope with fire along their shared fringe.
That was true north as well as south. The San Andreas fault is less a geologic cut, neatly cleaving the crust into two sides, than a swarm of breaks as deep stresses release their strain and ripple through heterogenous rock. Even so, two regions along its complex trace stand out. To the south the swarm flexes into the Transverse Range. To the north a parallel fault swarm, highlighted by the massive Hayward fault, doubles the zone. The San Andreas proper runs to the west, and its echo, the Hayward, to the east. San Francisco Bay lies between them. The two dominant urban fires that frame California’s fire century face each other with one of those faults at their back.
In the three centuries that span from Jamestown to San Francisco’s immolation, a westering population had hastily erected towns and then watched them burn. The process of squeezing flame out of cityscapes came slowly and fitfully. Boston and New York continued to burn well into the 19th century. Only as buildings became less combustible (more brick and stone than wood), as flame became less abundant in daily life, and as firefighting became better organized did conflagrations reluctantly leave the metropoli and join footloose folk on the frontier. The last major urban fire on the East Coast was Baltimore’s in 1904. San Francisco’s fire two years later was the final conflagration of the settlement era.
Historians have come to think of the 20th century as a “short century,” defined by the onset of the Great War in 1914 and the end of the Cold War in 1991. For fire history the corresponding events are the San Francisco conflagration of 1906 and the Oakland holocaust of 1991. The two cities pair off across the Bay; so, too, they bookend a century. They are the Big Ones that haunt the imagination of California fire. They were big not because of geographic size but because they slammed into cultural centers that could register the shock. They killed. They incinerated, for the one, the major entrepot of the western U.S. and, for the other, an elite community. They were fires that burst through nightmare into fact.
§ In many ways San Francisco’s fire history echoed that of the nation. The embryonic city was incinerated on Christmas Eve of 1849. The next year three fires swept through what was a high-order mining camp masquerading as a town. In 1851 the Great Fire destroyed three-fourths of the city, the same proportion as the 1906 fire. What the fire missed, a second fire claimed later in 1851. Then, as the city passed through its accelerated adolescence, its fire scene settled down. Outbreaks more resembled episodes of domestic violence or saloon brawls than out-in-the-streets rioting. The big fires moved out to prospect the countryside.[i]
The mature city erected less combustible buildings and disciplined fires through a vigorous fire department. Paradoxically, without major burns to cleanse the cityscape – a kind of creative destruction – the city housed more and more relic structures from its wooden age. In October 1905 the National Board of Fire Underwriters investigated San Francisco and reported that 90% of the city’s structures were wooden framed. No other major metropolis approached that figure, but then no other had progressed so suddenly from canvas tents to an edifice complex with monuments such as the Ferry Building and new City Hall. Only 54 years before, the city had consisted of surveyor stakes in windswept grass.When, at 5:12 am on the morning of 18 April 1906, the San Andreas ruptured and sent earthwaves rolling across the Bay area, like a hurricane driving high seas before it.
While the city was vulnerable to fire, it was not living on a knife-edge of conflagration. Rather than slow down settlement, or compel rebuilding to national codes, the city had relied on its fire department to halt fires before they became large. For decades that strategy had worked because the number of fires was small and access relatively easy. An earthquake, however, changed that calculus. It kindled many ignitions, its rubble and ruptures checked movement, and it broke water mains. Firefighting alone might not succeed, and in fact, in the hands of the military and vigilantes who eventually took over the process, it proved fatally flawed as dynamited buildings and clumsy backburns almost certainly encouraged fire spread.
Given the density of the built landscape, it did not take much for stubbornly established fires to take out city blocks and then most of the city. A former chief geologist of the USGS, G.K. Gilbert, was in Berkeley when the tremors struck. On Friday he took the ferry across the Bay and recorded the fire’s movement. “The westward progress of the fire north of Market Street has been checked chiefly by backfiring at Van Ness Avenue. The houses opposite were blistered and had glass broken, and at one place the fire broke across, to be checked at Franklin St. Backfiring is in progress N. of Pac. Avenue, and apparently being carried to the waterfront. From this the fire rushes up the slope of Russian Hill, consuming block after block of houses – chiefly of wood. The flames work with wonderful speed. While I lingered, whole squares were consumed. An hour is probably enough to raze a square of wooden houses.” Ever the scientist – when the tremors had awakened him, while still in bed he began timing the shocks and analyzing their direction by the swing of the chandelier – he measured the burning time for a two-story house. “Roof gone in 7’; first falling of wall in 9’; flaming ruins in 12’.”[ii]
This was primarily a fuel-and-ignition fire. The April weather was warm and fog-free, but California’s parching summer had not started, the city was not gripped by drought, and the winds were mild. Synoptic systems moved through the region, slightly out of phase with the fires. There was an episodic easterly breeze, and the first day, Wednesday, the winds shifted confusingly between damp northwest and dry east flows. The second day saw the winds blow from the east, drying the scene and driving fire away from the Bay. On Friday the northwestlies returned. On Saturday it rained. There were terrain effects, notably as fires moved up San Francisco’s fabled hills. But mostly what propelled the burn was the density of available combustibles and the abundance of ignitions – those that started the initial outbreaks and those set deliberately or ineptly in attempts to stop it. The critical winds were apparently those created by the fire itself.
The 1906 fire was a plume-dominated conflagration, as Jack London reported from the scene. “It was dead calm. Not a flicker of wind stirred. Yet from every side wind was pouring in upon the city. East, west, north, and south, strong winds were blowing upon the doomed city. The heated air rising made an enormous suck. Thus did the fire of itself build its own colossal chimney through the atmosphere. Day and night this dead calm continued, and yet, near to the flames, the wind was often half a gale, so mighty was the suck.” When it ended, all that survived was “the fringe of dwelling-houses on the outskirts of what was once San Francisco.”[iii]
The defining event was neither fuel nor wind but a 7.9 earthquake that overwhelmed the fire protection system of the day. Too many fires, too little water, too much social chaos – that was the fire triangle that shook San Francisco to its foundations. For the rest of the 20th century urban fires in developed countries followed a similar scenario. It took earthquakes, wars, or riots to break down the built landscape and its social infrastructure sufficiently to where it could carry fire. As the century progressed, the San Francisco scene was turned inside-out as urban fire moved to the fringe and left an incombustible core. Cities were subject to occasional catastrophes in high-density structures but no longer to free-burning conflagrations.
The final tally reckoned 4.7 square miles burned – 508 city blocks, or 2,832 acres. Some 28,188 structures were lost (88% of them wooden). The official roster of fatalities was 700, but observers believe the likelier total ran between 2,000 and 3,000 lives. The official narrative deliberately turned away from the earthquake as cause, since it was a geologic precondition that residents could do nothing about, to the fire, which they could. For the next century the city that had begun in a de facto fire rush ceased to burn.
§ Refugees poured across the Bay into Oakland. The saga of Oakland’s fire history thus began as an aftershock of San Francisco’s. The newcomers met a fire scene not unlike San Francisco’s before it urbanized. The landscape consisted of grassy hillsides dappled with copses of trees, often redwoods, nestled near springs. The golden hillsides burned regularly and harmlessly. As long as the city lined the wharf or served as an outpost to San Francisco and Berkeley, its urban fires were those typical of wooden towns everywhere. What changed the dynamic was when houses moved up the hills.
The East Bay was a miniature Transverse Range. The Hayward fault shouldered up an embankment of hills. A seasonal wind, known as the Diablo since it flowed past Mount Diablo, a prominent monadnock, was a northern Santa Ana ready to spill over that height. Settlement evolved sentiments to preserve the framing hills and East Bay backcountry as natural preserve. All this replicated the basics that made the Southern California fire scene so explosive, and as the city crept from the Bay to the Hills, it promised to recreate the south’s cataclysmic fires. What checked this scenario, however, was the absence of the high-octane chaparral that made blowing-and-going fires along the Transverse unstoppable. The Oakland Hills had annual grasses, savanna oaks, and riparian redwoods. Fires might be frequent and annoying; they would not be ruinous.
While San Francisco hastily rebuilt, in Oakland refugees became residents, and the city grew as an alternative. By 1910 it had ballooned to a population of 150,000. Developers – the new 49ers of California prosperity – knew “good sign” when they saw it. On the Hills, arrayed like an amphitheater that looked out on the Bay and San Francisco, they erected the Claremont Hotel, platted some 13,000 acres of land for suburbs, and began softening the windy grasslands with trees, shrubs, and ornamentals including broom that would add color, texture, and privacy, and (so they argued) might serve as fire windbreaks. They planted Monterey pine, a native from the Coast Range to the south. They planted eucalypts, an exotic from Australia. And, as easy money ebbed and flowed, they planted houses.
Settlement encouraged two trends. One filled up wildland with city, the other, cityscape with trees. Before settlement some 2% of Oakland is estimated to have been in woods. Between 1910 and 1913 the primary developer, Frank Havens, afforested some one and eight million eucalypts, mostly around the outskirts. The City Beautiful movement encouraged internal plantings. By the late 1950s roughly 21% of Oakland was treed. As the city spread outward, it absorbed more of its adjacent wildlands, or more accurately, open space. In the mid-1930s probably half of the nominal city was vacant when citizens organized a tax district to support a system of parks. By 1988 only 20% remained open, and that was secured under the auspices of the East Bay Regional Park District. The “wildlands” claimed the hills and their backsides. The city spread below. The two trajectories – houses and trees – crossed in 1988.[iv]
What joined the two realms was the Diablo wind. What did not join them was the kind of common administrative fire service developed by the contract counties of the south, the California Department of Forestry, or the U.S. Forest Service. The East Bay thus evolved a diminutive echo of the Southern California scene, with a regional park system taking the place of national forests, but it did so without comparable fire institutions. Alameda County did not evolve along the model of the Los Angeles County Fire Department in which a single agency had to fuse fires from both wildlands and cities. Oakland remained, proudly, an urban fire department. It had the only apparatus capable to attacking a high-rise fire in the East Bay. It did not have air tankers.
§ As its landscape changed, so did the character of its fires. When Oakland was a wharf with back streets of shops and saloons, “recurring fires…almost every year swept over the hills,” according to the Oakland Tribune. They did to the grasslands what sailors did to their ships each year when they careened and cleaned them of barnacles. As settlement pushed further up the Hills, flames and city clashed and fires ceased to be seasonal nuisances and became historic milestones.
On September 27, 1923 a Diablo wind drove flames through the Berkeley Hills and into the campus of the University of California. Some 3,100 acres and 584 houses burned. Ten years later a Diablo-driven fire scorched a thousand acres and five homes. In 1946 another thousand acres burned. While the early outbreaks had identified “smokers” as a cause, the newer ones charged arsonists. Meanwhile smaller fires under the influence of westerly winds burned 10, 30, and in one exceptional instance, 700 acres. These were big numbers for a city but negligible for grassy wildlands. Then, in 1970 after a hard frost had killed many blue gum eucalypts and rained litter over the landscape, a Diablo wind powered fire through 204 acres and 37 houses. It was the first outbreak in what became the statewide 1970 fire siege.
Alarm among the wildland fire community was acute. The nearby UC Berkeley, after all, hosted one of the premier forestry and fire science programs in the country. When drought and frost returned in 1977, the prospects for East Bay fire found its way into congressional testimony. What boosted concern was the character of the settlement along and under the summit of the Hills. These were the residencies of the East Bay elite, the Northern California equivalent to Malibu or the Hollywood Hills, even if they were more likely to house Nobel Laureates than movie stars. They made conflagrations the celebrity fires of the Bay Area. A small but damaging fire in 1980 kept the pot boiling. A scheme to establish a DMZ between parklands and city was deemed both damaging and ineffective, but led to a Blue Ribbon Fire Prevention Committee, chaired by William Penn Mott (later director of the National Park Service), which issued its report in 1982 and recommended a fuelbreak, although tempered by aesthetic considerations. Still, much as with San Francisco prior to 1906, fire’s threat remained more vivid than its reality.
Then came the fire of the century. On October 20 the Oakland fire department knocked down a fire that started as a warming or cooking campfire amid a spot of pines near Marlborough Terrace. Crews mopped up by soaking the perimeter lines. The next day, while on site and rolling up hoses, the still-smoldering hot spots disgorged embers, the flames got into patches of Monterrey pine litter untouched by hose lines. The rekindled fire raced up a largely grassy slope to the ridgeline. There the Diablo wind caught it, and the fire blew up. With stunning speed it burned out the basin below Grizzly Peak. It burned through the Parkwood Apartments. It burned out the Hiller Highlands. It burned out Grandview Canyon. It burned over Highway 24. In the first hour it consumed 790 structures, each of which scattered new sources of ignition. What became known as the Tunnel fire spotted over Lake Temescal. It burned through the Rockridge District. When the Diablo winds finally slackened and northwesterly winds returned, the main front – a swarm of new ignitions, building after building – headed southeastward into Forest Park. A new index of fire spread, homes burned per hour, made its appearance. Before the orgy of burning ended, 3,354 houses and 456 apartments were ash, and 25 people had died. Total area burned amounted to 1,600 acres. It was America’s worst urban fire disaster since 1906.[v]
§ A cataclysm this horrific scatters reports and after-action reviews like spot fires. This one sparked reviews at all levels of government, from citizen groups to the National Fire Protection Association, from a mayoral task force to California OES to NFPA and FEMA. As with all major disasters the surveys identified many causes, most of which had to happen together to produce results so far off the scale. Those factors that governed fire behavior fell into two general categories. One pertained to the fire environment; the other, to fire suppression capabilities.
There could be little dissent from the observation that the East Bay Hills were a prime natural setting for fire. A mediterranean climate, seasonal foehn winds, terrain that could channel fire like a coal chute, and pyrophytic vegetation that encrusted the hillside – such conditions would argue for fire anywhere they appeared. That the fire occurred amid a drought and an epidemic of sudden oak death, after frosts that killed eucalypts, then a record hot spell, worsened the circumstances; yet the values were “extreme, not exceptional,” and even the exotic flora only acted as an accelerant by allowing embers to kindle surface fuels and fling sparks from torching eucalypts. The “wildland” fire, however, had burned upslope toward the summit, not through the structures; and in the end, the canyon’s flora survived better than its structures. The fuels that mattered were the houses and especially their wood-shingle roofs. So close where the houses that they burned one to another, and so combustible were the roofs that they both received sparks and recast them into the wind. The character of the quasi-natural setting allowed the fire to start. The character of the city allowed it to spread.[vi]
The capacity to fight the fire was badly compromised. After decades of boom, Oakland went bust in the 1970s. City services decayed, among them the capacity to maintain the kind of varied fire protection demanded by the mix of landscapes within the city. Over and again, the urban fire service failed to integrate with wildland counterparts. It did not know of the red-flag warning posted by CDF for the day of the fire. It did not understand how mopup in wildland fuels differs from overhaul in buildings. It did not appreciate how a city, full of internal firewalls, might be breached from the perimeter and find itself assaulted not from the streets but from the air. It had not reckoned with fire-induced power failures that neutralized pumping stations. It had not adopted ICS, and could not function seamlessly with assisting agencies. It could not communicate on common radios (CDF officers resorted to telephoning dispatchers). It had three-inch hydrants, while adjacent cities used national standard two-and-a-half. But even if compatibility had been perfect, the fire would have likely bolted away because it was moving faster than a fire department ever could. Something else intervened to break down the response.
That something was the wind. It did for Oakland what the earthquake had done for San Francisco. It simply overwhelmed the capacity to respond. The OES report noted haplessly that “a fire burning 400 or more homes per hour does not allow for normal fire-fighting tactics – either urban or wildland.” Even mutual aid requires time to muster engines, planes, and personnel. In the first hour 790 homes burned. Within two hours the conflagration had reached perhaps 80% of its final size. The narrow streets soon clogged with traffic and fleeing residents. It was not possible to move people and cars out as fast as the fire moved in. Converging fire engines met outgoing civilian autos. There was no Maxwell’s demon in the box canyon to sort them out. There was no single flaming perimeter or high-rise to focus the action, only hundreds of individual fires – the firefight as melee.[vii]
The subsequent committees, panels, boards, and task forces published hundreds of recommendations, ranked by priorities. Some involved simple changes in protocol (eg, getting daily fire weather). Many, however, required costly retrofitting, either by the city or residents in the Hills (such as refitting hydrants and burying powerlines). Given the parlous state of Oakland’s finances, only a fraction could be enacted. But perhaps the most critical need was simply institutional: the East Bay needed the fire equivalent of its municipal utility district, or what Southern California had found with its county-CalFire-Forest Service triumvirate. The South Coast, however, had a few big, wealthy entities; the East Bay had many, smaller, and poorer ones. Even the 100,000-acres regional parklands distributed that largesse among 65 units.
Still, the reconstruction went forward. The neighborhoods rose from the ash, with better fire protection built in. After several stumbles, the East Bay Regional Park District was voted bonding authority in 2010 to expand. A Hills Emergency Forum gathered the various constituencies into a common conversation. A memorial – shaped like a gutted house with a missing roof – was erected at the intersection of Highways 13 and 24. The scars, both environmental and social, slowly healed. Ten years later the HEF sponsored a review, and another 10 years later.
The threat remained dormant, not dead. A million people crowded against the Hills in polyglot patches, perhaps 70% of them newly arrived since 1991. Parks claimed 10% of the landscape, a number that would rise. The municipal economy remained feeble. The Diablo still blew. Someday another Big One would shake the Hills.
§ It seems the worst expression of pedantry to fuss over labels and classifications in the face of such calamity. Yet nine days shy of ten years after the Tunnel fire the Twin Towers burned, identifying a new urban fire threat. How that problem was defined led to a decadal war on terror that bled the country white and may have increased rather than diminished its security. Definitions matter.
What kind of fire burned the East Bay Hills in 1991? Was it an urban fire, a wildland fire, or an intermixing of the two? Did it follow a Northern or Southern California scenario? Did it result from breakdowns in fire departments, or from a social fracturing that made the ability to control fire – long considered the very essence of civilization – too difficult? Were the parklands along the Hills a threat to the city, or the city to the parklands? Did the fire’s narrative pivot on blue gums prone to torching, or on shake-shingle roofs receptive to firebrands? What witch’s brew of poisons and social incantation actually stirred in the canyons’ cauldron? How the problem was defined would decide what solutions were suitable. People would argue over fixes because they disagreed over causes.
Most early commentators, including myself, saw the Tunnel fire as an example of the emerging intermix fire scene. They looked at the gusty summit where wind and housing, stacked like cordwood, met, and shuddered. They likened the catastrophe to the 1990 Painted Cave fire that swept disastrously into Santa Barbara. To their credit many East Bay parks people, often staffed with early-retired fire officers from the Forest Service, recognized the potential for fires to bolt out of open lands into the city and exercised leadership in creating something like the consortia that had evolved to the south. Many, too, had long experienced the arduous and eccentric politics of public involvement. Patiently, yet with a sense of urgency, they applied those lessons to the Hills.
Yet closer inspection reveals the Tunnel fire as an urban fire. The wildlands were adjacent, but their only contribution, after a fashion, was the Diablo wind, which would blow with or without dedicated parklands. The fundamental problem was that the city had planted structures, as earlier developers had eucalypts, where they didn’t belong, and then did so in ways that violated even urban fire standards. If the outcome didn’t look like an urban fire, it’s because the character of urban settlement had changed. San Francisco filled up its hills until the entire tip of the peninsula was built over. The Pyne clan arrived during the gold rush, and a family story holds that the patriarch once won Nob Hill in a poker game before declaring that “nothing will ever live up there but the goats” and trading the deed away for something usable (a case of whiskey). In reality, the goats were driven off, and the hills populated by flocks of wooden houses. Oakland (and sister cities like Berkeley) kept the goats. They mixed pyrophytic landscaping with the wooden houses, and had a backcountry from which fire and wind could come. San Francisco was how cities developed in the early 20th century. The Oakland Hills was how they developed near the end of the century.
The prime mover is the push for high-end urban development, of which proximity to quasi-natural settings with expansive views are valued amenities. That is why the frontier between city and park exists and why quarreling is interminable about tradeoffs regarding trees and houses. The story demonstrates, however, why California has the fire management system it does. Whatever the starting point, if the site is south of the San Andreas, or its East Bay offset, the Hayward, the pressures will drive the outcome to the same responses. If those measures fail, the fires will follow.
September 11, 2011 /[pdf]