Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 3, 2003

The aftershocks of Calif. fires
Twelve years after a deadly inferno in Oakland, survivors are still feeling the effects.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The televised images of Southern California's wildfires last week resonated deep in the soul of Lorraine Force, who survived a similar firestorm that raged 12 years ago through Oakland's North Hills.

"The news reels bring it all back, and I don't want to see it again," said Force, 75, a retired school librarian who was trapped for three hours in the Oakland-Berkeley fire that killed 25 people and destroyed nearly 2,800 homes.

While Southern Californians have only begun to grapple with the effects of the wildfires there, the folks here have still not fully recovered.

For Force, there are haunting memories of the October 1991 conflagration. Her next-door neighbor returned to her house to salvage her jewelry and perished. When Force and her husband finally escaped the neighborhood, they rescued a black Labrador that sat forlornly beside the body of its owner, her arms still outstretched to hold off the heat.

Force and other survivors say the inferno was only the beginning of the nightmare.

The fire set off months of hassles with insurance companies and years of rebuilding.

"Almost every insurance company dug in its heels and did not make it easy," said Force, who rebuilt her home and moved back 30 months after the fire. "There was a whole lot of paperwork."

And then there was the immeasurable psychic toll, the mourning over lost family, neighbors, pets and possessions.

"We know of many cases of clinical depression," said Barry Pilger, who lives up the street from Force. "Many marriages did not survive the rebuilding process. A lot of families left the area."

More than a decade after the fire, the rebuilding continues. About a quarter of the lots are still vacant, and construction crews clog the narrow lanes that wind along the sheer hillsides, which command a breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Many lots still contain traces of foundations or the stumps of large trees that provided the fuel for a blaze that raced down the steep canyons with astonishing fury - 300 houses were consumed in the first hour alone. A neighborhood that once was dense with towering Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees is now mostly open chaparral.

No one who experienced the uncontrollable frenzy wants to risk such a fire again. The new houses have far less wood in their construction, with concrete and stucco dominating. Fire marshals cite property owners who allow debris to accumulate. Stone and concrete memorials to the dead remind neighbors what transpired here.

"There are lots of new residents in the hills who don't understand what it's like when the fire takes over," said Cheryl Miller, a staff member at the Hills Emergency Forum, a coalition of local governments and institutions that coordinates readiness.

A new resident whose lot contains several eucalyptus trees made the mistake at a recent North Hills Phoenix Association picnic of stating that fire no longer posed a danger.

"Everyone at the table pounced on him," Pilger said. "He has religion now."

As if on cue, the fires in Southern California are serving as a timely reminder to the Oakland City Council, which is scheduled to vote tomorrow to set up a ballot issue to create the Oakland Wildfire Protection District.

The new district would clear brush and debris on public and private lands, including maintaining herds of goats to graze 350 acres of parkland. The district would dispatch extra roving firefighter patrols on high fire-hazard days in autumn, when the gusty winds and bone-dry landscape form a perilous combination.

The city previously provided the fire-protection services but was forced to curtail the effort because of the recessionary budget constraints. The special district would assess 25,000 homeowners in the city's forested highlands $65 a year.

The fire district proponents work at night on telephone banks to develop support for the election, which will be voted by mail ballots for 45 days.

"The fires in Southern California make it a little easier to sell," said Pilger, who is active in the Keep Oakland Firesafe organization.

Indeed, the Southern California fires were an active subject on Northern California's talk radio stations last week as the victims of the region's many natural disasters - wildfires, earthquakes - urged residents to take precautions. They said it was especially important to have a plan in case of a disaster, to keep insurance updated, and to store records and photos in safe-deposit boxes.

"We were lucky because we had remodeled our house the year before the fire and our architect had complete photos of the house, including the contents," said Pilger, a mortgage broker. Other neighbors had much more difficulty documenting their losses.

Victims said there were some advantages to not suffering an individual loss. Support groups quickly formed - a group called United Policyholders organized to share information about insurance claims. The Federal Emergency Management Agency covered the cost for building permits. And the municipal government streamlined its process for approving construction.

"The fact that we weren't the only survivor helped," said Sue Piper, who is active in the North Hills Landscape Committee. "You can pool your resources, share work."

"Knowing you're not alone diminishes the sense of a persecution complex," Pilger said.

And there are some lasting improvements. The residents say they are better organized as a community now.

"Before the fire, we didn't really know our neighbors," Pilger said. home page   
Recent news
  | Africa coverage  |  Archives  |  Afghanistan coverage  |  E-mail from Africa  |  Magazine articles | Photographs  |  Bio 
African Odyssey
  |  Apartheid's Secrets  |  Democracy's Promises  |  The Forgotten Wars  |  Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide

Copyright 2001-2006 Andrew Maykuth