'We Got Lucky': Oakland Hills Fire Could've Been Much Worse, Fire Official Says

'This is why defensible space is so important for homeowners. You run out of fuel, you run out of fire.'

by Matthias Gafni, East Bay Times / December 22, 2017

(TNS) — The cause of a dangerous Oakland, Calif., hills fire earlier this month still has not been determined, but fire investigators and vegetation inspection records indicate that clearing overhanging trees and brush around nearby homes may have prevented a disastrous, wind-blown blaze.

The Dec. 11 fire started inside one of two neighboring houses under construction on the 6700 block of Snake Road. Of the six surrounding houses, five had been found compliant on their 2017 vegetation inspections. One Heartwood Drive home had no record of a 2017 inspection, but historically had passed such reviews, said Vince Crudele, vegetation management unit inspector supervisor.

“This is why defensible space is so important for homeowners. You run out of fuel, you run out of fire,” Crudele said. “We got lucky that we had vegetation management in that neighborhood. People had successfully created defensible space around their houses.”

The importance of defensible space, particularly in urban-wildland interface areas like the Oakland hills, became increasingly clear this year with the deadly and historic wildfires that swept through Sonoma and Napa counties, destroying thousands of homes, and the Southern California blazes that continue to burn.

There is a vegetation inspection program in the fire-prone Oakland hills, where a deadly, wind-fueled blaze in 1991 killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. However hills residents in 2013 rejected renewal of a 10-year wildfire prevention tax that paid for inspections, brush clearing, goat grazing and other proactive measures to reduce fire danger. And a recent survey done independently by concerned hills residents found between 10 percent and 50 percent of properties observed at the end of July and early September this year did not meet Oakland’s defensible space codes, including a third of homes on the nearby 5800 block of Snake Road.

That area of the hills did not burn in the 1991 fire, and some streets are narrow, winding and very woodsy. Crudele said this month’s blaze that sent embers blasting across the neighborhood and residents fleeing could have been much worse had nearby homeowners not trimmed lower limbs off trees, cleared brush and removed debris from rain gutters.

“If that had been broom and brush three feet high, we’d be having a completely different conversation right now,” Crudele said.

The fire started somewhere inside two homes under construction on Snake Road. The construction projects began April 10 when the city granted building permits and on Aug. 10, one of the properties was permitted to have temporary power. Vegetation inspectors only inspect vacant lots or homes with people living inside, so during construction the city’s building department is responsible for ensuring a clean construction site and no fire hazards. City records show no complaints for the two sites.

Witnesses reported hearing a small explosion in one of the properties before the fire broke out around 11:20 p.m.

Stiff winds blew embers from west to east and pushed the fire across Snake Road and up a steep hill toward the 6600 block of Heartwood Drive. The fire made it partially up the steep hillside because some vegetation remained on the sandstone cliff to keep the hill stable, Crudele said, but lost steam because those houses had removed nearby brush from the hill, slowing the spread, Crudele said.

In total, about .8 acres burned during the four-alarm fire, Crudele said. He stressed that homeowners, especially with the lengthening fire seasons, need to make sure defensible space is monitored year-round because vegetation can grow even after their homes pass inspections.

About 50 houses along Colton Boulevard, Asilomar Circle, Armour Drive and Heartwood Drive were evacuated during the event. There were no reported injuries, but a retaining wall was badly damaged.

Sue Piper, who lost her Hiller Highlands home in the 1991 fire, agreed that it could have been much worse.

“It was scary — especially with the high winds on the ridge,” she said.

Piper’s group that performed the survey expect their report to go before the city council public safety committee next month. She hopes to raise money for a statewide study on other communities inspection requirements, job description for inspectors, procedures to get scofflaws into compliance and different funding mechanisms.


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