The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 3, 2003
aftershocks of Calif. fires
Twelve years after a deadly
inferno in Oakland, survivors are still feeling the effects.
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
And then there was the immeasurable
psychic toll, the mourning over lost family, neighbors, pets and
"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
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
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
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.