OAKLAND -- Typically there is a big fire in the Oakland hills every 20 or 30 years, the interim fire chief told Oakland hills fire survivors, city leaders and residents Thursday: the 20th anniversary of the Oakland hills fire.

Much has been done with vegetation management, infrastructure improvements, emergency response preparation and construction guidelines in Oakland and Berkeley since the 1991 fire that killed 25 people, destroyed more than 3,800 homes and burned more than 1,500 acres.

But in front of the Firestorm Memorial Garden and sculpture on Tunnel Road and Hiller Drive, interim Fire Chief Mark Hoffmann and Mayor Jean Quan issued a "to-do" list for residents in order to be best prepared when -- not if -- the next big fire or earthquake hits.

Keep enough water in your car and home to survive at least one day, store extra sneakers in both places and have access to a windup radio, she said.

"We will have another fire and we need to be prepared," said Hoffmann. Since the 1991 fire, he said, utilities have been placed underground, improvements have been made to fire hydrants and there is better radio communication for emergency personnel. "We will be better able to serve you, but you have to meet us halfway on that."

Hofffman urged people to report felled trees and cars blocking roads so fire trucks can get through in an emergency, and to make sure each family has an emergency plan.

But, most importantly, he said, "it's up to the young people to carry the message forward and make sure you are prepared."

Sue Piper, Quan's spokeswoman and a survivor of the firestorm herself, said only about 30 percent of those who experienced the inferno still live in the Oakland hills.

"So while current residents intellectually understand that a major fire could occur, they don't recognize with their gut that it's too late to plan when the fire is consuming houses one every 11 seconds, as it did on Oct. 20, 1991," she said. "Seven hundred and ninety homes were destroyed in the first hour alone."

Piper encouraged residents to come to the Family Preparedness Fair at Lake Temescal on Saturday to learn practical information about disaster preparation. Another disaster preparedness workshop will be held Saturday at King Middle School in Berkeley.

Meanwhile, Piper's husband, Gordon Piper, 65, has been busy with his own project. He was on his roof at 10:53 a.m. Oct. 20, 1991, doing home maintenance when the fire started, he said. He was wearing his father's old work overalls and escaped with those clothes and little else.

For the past 20 years, Gordon Piper, the chairman of the Oakland Landscape Committee, has been part of a group that installed and maintained the Firestorm Memorial Garden.

It was dedicated on Oct. 15, 1994, with a bronze sculpture representing the tenacity and spirit of survivors in the form of green and black symbolic tree limbs. Over the years, the garden has attracted survivors, curious tourists and twice been the target of vandals, who have stolen the bronze for its metal value, he said.

"A year ago when vandals cut through the stems for a second time I was faced with the question of repairing the structure or removing it entirely," he said.

With $6,000 insurance money and about $350 raised from a bake sale by fifth-graders at nearby Bentley School, the memorial was renovated and a round-the-clock security system, with lights, cameras and a siren, was installed.

Memorial events
Saturday
  • 9 a.m.: Reflection at Firestorm Tile Wall, Rockridge BART station.
  • 10:30 a.m.: Remembrance at Gateway Emergency, Preparedness Exhibit Center at Tunnel Road and Caldecott Lane. Formal civic ceremony with leaders from Oakland, Berkeley and firestorm community.
  • Noon: Family Preparedness Fair, Lake Temescal, 6500 Broadway (north entrance). Fun and informative event for families and friends, Smokey Bear, firetrucks, face painting and jumpy house; information on family preparedness for earthquakes and fires.
  • 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Disaster Preparedness Workshop, King Middle School, 1781 Rose St. in Berkeley.