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URGENT Fire Burns Hundreds of Homes in Oakland Hills; 10 Killed

October 21, 1991

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) _ A wind-driven brush fire exploded into a firestorm Sunday as it roared through upscale neighborhoods in the hills above Oakland, engulfing hundreds of homes and killing 10 people, authorities said.

Residents ran into streets, clutching their belongings and pets. Gusts whipped flames as high as 100 feet through dry brush and thick smoke blocked out sunlight. Some people drove to safety through streets filled with flaming debris and lined with burning trees and homes.

The fire moved quickly from street to street, then hillside to hillside, making a deafening roar as it charred neighborhoods with panoramic views of San Francisco Bay. Many residents said they only had time to grab photos and documents.

″The trees were exploding. It looked like the Fourth of July. I think we lost everything. I think it’s all gone,″ said Steve Hischier, who fled with his wife and daughter.

″It is a terrible disaster,″ Gov. Pete Wilson said as he toured the scene Sunday evening. Wilson declared a state of emergency and placed the National Guard on alert.

The hills were parched from a five-year drought, and wind gusts reaching 40 mph hampered efforts to fight the fire. The temperature reached the high 80s in the afternoon and humidity was low.

The blaze, which was reported in the late morning, continued to burn out of control into the night. By early evening, officials said it covered 1,500 acres.

Mayor Elihu Harris said at a news conference that hundreds of homes had burned, but said the exact number couldn’t immediately be determined.

Ten people were killed, including a police officer, said Alameda County Supervisor Don Perata. Five of the victims apparently were evacuating a home when they were caught, Perata said. He didn’t know how the others died.

At least 50 people, including three firefighters, were treated at hospitals for burns, smoke inhalation and other injuries, officials said.

A brown pall extended over Oakland to San Francisco, 15 miles across the bay. Ash fell at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park during a football game between the 49ers and the Detroit Lions.

There was no immediate report on what caused the fire. On Saturday, firefighters halted a five-alarm brush fire in the same area before structures were damaged. Harris said it wasn’t known whether that fire had flared up.

Hundreds were forced to evacuate. The Red Cross alone reported 800 people in shelters it had set up. About 1,000 students were evacuated from dormitories on the campus of University of California, Berkeley, when the fire came close to Berkeley, a school spokesman said.

The fire burned through a heavily wooded residential area near the Caldecott Tunnel that goes through the hills ringing San Francisco. The area is filled with fashionable homes and condominiums.

Jocelyn Grote fought back tears as she sat in a car parked on Claremont Boulevard.

″We stuffed all our clothes in bags - our pictures, our files, anything and everything we could grab,″ she said. ″There were big clots of fire streaming over the house. When we left, the fire was just on the treetops in our backyard.″

Curtis Karplus and his wife, Rosemary, had to leap off their 6-foot balcony to escape.

″The fire exploded all around us. I thought it was all over,″ Karplus said. ″I looked out the window and saw a wall of fire.″

Away from the fire, gusts of wind whipped smoke through the streets and ash rained down. Thunderous explosions were heard - blasts firefighters attributed to propane tanks, parched trees or electric transformers.

Thousands of spectators lined streets, some snapping pictures. Hundreds of young men, many carrying shovels, rakes, hose and axes, ran forward to help fight the fire.

J. Weinreb said the fire forced him to flee from his home shortly after he woke up and saw smoke everywhere.

″It looked like it was far away and then there were cinders everywhere,″ he said. ″The home was burning and we had to get out. We just ran.″

Helen Kwak drove down a road as flames burned on either side of the street. ″My house was catching on fire,″ she said. ″I tried to soak the house as best I could but it still burned.″

Annette Baron, whose home was destroyed, waited at a shelter as her husband hurried back to Oakland from a business trip in Maine.

″I don’t know what else to do,″ Baron said. ″The question is what to do tomorrow.″

Flames surrounded reservoirs and pumping stations, hampering firefighters’ efforts to battle the blaze, said Ida McClendon, a spokeswoman for East Bay Municipal Utility District.

″We have adequate water, we just have a situation were we can’t get to the water,″ she said.

Power was knocked out in the area, officials said.

State Highway 24, which runs through the Caldecott Tunnel, was closed, a California Highway Patrol spokesman said. Bay Area Rapid Transit, which uses the tunnel for its commuter trains, halted service in the area.

It was the most destructive fire in California since a wildfire destroyed 560 homes and other buildings in Santa Barbara County in June 1990. In 1923, a brush fire in Berkeley destroyed 584 homes.

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