The Oakland Hills, which was devastated by the Tunnel Fire in 1991, has some things in common with Australia. The most obvious is the eucalyptus trees, a species imported from down under. The volatile highly combustible oil in the leaves causes fires to burn rapidly under them and through the tree crowns. The eucalyptus contributed to the spread of the Tunnel fire, which killed 25 people, injured 106 residents, and burned 3,354 homes.
Christine Erikson has written about fires in Australia and authored a book titled Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty. During a visit to the United States in which she made presentations at conferences, she toured the Oakland Hills. Below is an excerpt from an article she wrote about the experience:
…I felt right at home amongst the swaying eucalyptus trees, which despite much controversy still stand tall in the Oakland Hills. Yet, unlike the ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early’ mantra that is associated with living in eucalyptus dominated (i.e. fire-prone) landscapes in Australia, it was the continuing absence of an official policy on how to better prepare residents for future wildfires in the Oakland Hill that loomed large for me during the fieldtrip. What should residents do if evacuation is not a feasible option in the future? How can residents prepare so a similar disaster is prevented? These questions linger like ghosts at every twist and turn of the narrow, winding mountain roads where smoke, embers and flames resulted in accidents and panic that fatally trapped residents in 1991.
This ghostly presence clearly has not escaped the attention of the local Oakland Fire Department. In addition to official projects, the Department is now “unofficially” advising residents on what they can do to increase their chances of survival. Preparing properties in the Oakland Hills, however, is easier said than done. The recommended ten-metre clearance around residential homes is unrealistic in most of these neighbourhoods dominated by quarter acre blocks. A representative from the Oakland Hills Wildfire Prevention program pointed out that when these two-dimensional blocks are considered three-dimensionally, thus taking into consideration the considerable hill slope, these blocks become one-acre properties in need of defence. He furthermore spoke to the frustration of local building-, planning- and fire-codes not supporting each other. The statutory law of developing a given property, for example, sits within a planning code that does not necessarily follow local fire safety recommendations.
The video below, produced by the Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District, discusses the 1991 Tunnel fire and what the city is doing now to mitigate the vulnerability the area has to the next wildfire.