Maps Reports WLF Links Media Articles Multimedia Comments


Incident Name: Oakland/Berkeley Hills Fire (East Bay Hills or Tunnel Fire)
Date:  10/20/91, approximately 1130-1200 hrs 
Personnel: 2 Lives Lost
Agency/Organization:  Oakland Fire and Police Department 
Position: Varies


James Riley, Battallion Chief
John Grubensky, Police Officer

The largest dollar fire loss in United States history occurred in the East Bay Hills, within the California Cities of Oakland and Berkeley, between October 19 and 22, 1991. The coastal region was particularly vulnerable in the fall of 1991, after five years of drought, several months with no recorded precipitation, and reduced efforts to control wildland interface hazards due to state and local budget limitations.

What was originally called the Tunnel Fire (because of its origin above the west portal of the Caldecott Tunnel) began near Oakland Hills on October 19. The fire had nearly been contained, when a sole ember blew into a tree just outside the burn area, and the tree exploded into flame. The resulting fire was fueled by gusty local area Diablo winds and completely overwhelmed the firefighting forces of the area, consuming everything in its path, and was only stopped when the Diablo wind conditions abated.

At the time it was the largest response ever recorded; massive mutual aid provided by 440 engine companies and more than 1,500 firefighters. The damage extent was 3,354 structures destroyed, including 2,917 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units, 1,520 acres, and approximately 2,000 vehicles -- many of which clogged streets blocking egress. The economic loss was estimated at $1.5 Billion.

25 lives were lost, including Battalion Chief James Riley who was believed to have come in contact with a downed power line while helping a female resident who also died from the powerline contact. Oakland Police Officer John Grubensky was killed while trying to help citizens escape the fire. Both Chief Riley and Officer Grubensky were found with the remains of those people they were trying to help. A total of 23 civilians were killed, who were caught with very little, or no warning within the first hour of the fire; 150 people were injured.

Oakland Hills Firestorm: NASA DART Oakland Hills Firestorm: NASA DART
Oakland Police Officer John Grubensky Oakland Police Officer John Grubensky

Horizontal line


Riley's Fatality Location

Grubensky's Fatality Location (approximate)

Return to top

Horizontal line

Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • Oakland/Berkeley Hills: NFPA Report (4.02 MB pdf)
  • East Bay Hills: USFA Technical Review (4.25 MB pdf)

    Most of the fatalities occurred between 1130 and 1200 hours as the fire spread across the north face of Temescal Canyon, involving all of the structures on Buckingham, Westmoorland, Marlborough, Norfolk, Sherwick, Bristol, Charing Cross, and Tunnel Roads. The spread of the fire by 1200 is shown on the following page. Police officers and firefighters tried to evacuate the area as wind-blown brands and embers ignited more and more spot fires ahead of the rapidly moving fire front. Police cars cruised the streets with sirens wailing, and officers used their PA speakers to warn residents to evacuate.

    snippet of what happened to Chief Riley:

    Oakland's Division A, BC4, called the IC at 1144 hours with the message "fire at both ends -we're going to have to wait it out." The Battalion Chief had been with a Patrol unit that was forced to pull out of Buckingham Boulevard and made its way to Norfolk Road He left them near the intersection to retrieve his car, directing the Patrol on down Norfolk toward Strathmoor Drive to evacuate residents on the opposite side of the hill. The burned bodies of Battalion Chief James Riley and a civilian resident of the area were found hours later, near the location where he was last seen by the Patrol unit. It is believed that the Chief was trying to assist the woman, who had left her home by car, and both were electrocuted by a falling power line. The message from Division A at 1144 is the last recorded communication from Chief Riley.

    what happened to Police Officer Grubensky:

    The body of Oakland Police Officer John Grubensky was found, along with five civilian fatalities, at a narrow point on Charing Cross Road. It appeared that the cars were jammed at this point by a collision in the narrowest part of the road, and the occupants were unable to escape the advancing flames.The fatalities included individuals who were unable to evacuate, because of age or disabilities, and several who were overrun by the flames as they tried to escape. Firefighters reported hearing shouts for help from one home and not being able to reach it before it became heavily involved in flames. As their positions were overwhelmed, firelighting crews were split up, and for hours some members did not know the fate of the other members of their companies.

    (from the USFA Technical Review, pages 35-38, continues on through page 62 with details of Oct 20)

  • From Captain Donald Parker, Oakland Hills Fire Department: Overview
  • City of San Francisco Virtual Museum: Oakland/Berkeley Hills fire
  • Oakland/Berkeley Hills Fire: Wikipedia
  • USFA Database: James Riley, Jr
  • James Riley's name and death date are included in the USFA Firefighter Fatality Retrospective Study, published April 2002 (2,888 K pdf)
Oakland Hills Firestorm: Oakland FD Oakland Hills Firestorm: Oakland FD

Return to top
Horizontal line Links:



Return to top

Horizontal line

Media Articles and Reports.

  • How Firefighting Changed in California Following 1991’s Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire

From Emergency Link to Online Article
By: Jim McKay on August 11, 2010

A nice 5 mph breeze whistled through the trees in California’s Oakland-Berkeley Hills on Saturday, Oct. 19, 1991, as firefighters suppressed a 5-acre blaze in about three hours and left the scene that evening.

Firefighters were to return Sunday morning to mop up, but while they slept, two things happened: Although they had extinguished flames on the top part of the decaying plant and tree material (known as duff), the smoldering continued underneath. And the gentle breeze had picked up and was building into a Diablo wind, the dry slope winds that occur in the area. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now known as Cal Fire, but was called the CDF until 2007) had issued a Red Flag Warning the previous day.

As fire crews cleaned up Sunday morning, sparks burst out of the duff and took flight in 17 mph winds. At 10:35 a.m., a resident notified the Oakland Fire Department of a hot spot. Between 10:40 and 11:00 a.m., the winds picked up and gusted to 25 mph. By 11:15 a.m., the fire was out of control.

“Most of the state was aware that it was going to be a Red Flag day,” said retired Capt. Donald Parker of the Oakland Fire Department. “Frankly we didn’t know that.”

What followed was a conflagration that ended up killing 25 people. The fire consumed 790 homes during the first hour and caused chaos during the first six hours. Several factors on that day combined to produce the tragedy, and firefighting efforts were forever altered as a result.

Wildland Fire Training

When firefighters left the scene of the original fire on Saturday night, they thought they had extinguished the fire. But they didn’t realize, as wildland firefighters might have, that it was smoldering under the duff.

“We didn’t really have the level of training that the wildland firefighters had,” Parker said. “We had a few junior officers at the fire department at the time who had been CDF firefighters prior to coming to the Oakland Fire Department, so they were aware of some of the terminology, but command people hadn’t been exposed to that.”

“At the time, we were very much a suppression fire department,” said Mark Hoffman, assistant fire chief of the Oakland Fire Department. “We had our wool pants that we fought fires in; we would put on a Nomex shell, along with our structure helmets and that meant we were in our wildland fire mode.”

What Changed

Things began to change immediately. “After that, we got a lot more funding, a lot more training and were better equipped. We’re far better prepared,” Hoffman said. They’ve added Type 4 and Type 3 four-wheel drive brush trucks that have water pumping capability and more hose.

“We’ve been part of a regional approach and expanded our mutual response areas to where we train and work with those areas that will respond in the early stages of a fire,” Hoffman said. “And we incorporate CDF into our training more.”

Berkeley firefighters receive annual wildland training with improved equipment, including smaller, more mobile wildland equipment that gets them up and down the narrow hills better than the structure engine.

Berkeley and nearby counties do a scheduled burn each June as a “warm-up” to the fire season. “When we go through six months of really rainy weather where we haven’t been handling wildland concepts, then we put fire on the ground to get ready,” said Gil Dong, deputy fire chief of the Berkeley Fire Department. “We’re trying to get our command leaders to participate more in wildland training so they get experience outside serving at a command function and experience managing large-scale wildland fires.”

The Fuel

After a five-year drought, the grass and brush were bone dry and the place was a tinderbox. Hot winds spread the fires at a clip that destroyed 790 structures by noon, igniting one every 11 seconds, according to estimates.

This was a fire the magnitude of which the area sees every 20 to 30 years and had grown accustomed to just letting burn. But the area had been developed since the last big fire with houses built predominantly of combustible materials like wood shingle roofs. Many homes lay on steep slopes covered with debris, which the fire ate up in its ascent.

Many homes were also connected townhouses and they became fuel, along with the eucalyptus, juniper and Monterey pines that had grown thick. Unfortunately many of the homeowners didn’t create safety zones or fire breaks around their homes.That combined with combustible roofs on the majority of the homes, made containing the fire almost impossible.

What Changed

Berkeley and Oakland took steps to limit the fuel where possible. The Berkeley City Council enacted $50 assessments and used the proceeds to fund property inspections that ensured residents created defensible space.

In some areas, the departments of parks and forestry provide chippers and bags for residents to cut down and bag debris, which the departments pick up. Building permits are now issued only after the landowner provides an adequate vegetation management plan.

“If they’re putting new green stuff in the ground, they’re going to have to tell us how they’re managing it,” Dong said. “If the species of plant or whatever they’re putting down acts as fuel, we’ll tell them to change their plants.”

There are now also very strict vegetation management standards in Oakland, and large landowners and residents are billed for inspections. “We manage it proactively and never did before,” Hoffman said. “There are huge defensible space requirements.”

New building codes were adopted in both Oakland and Berkeley. Combustible roofs were largely to blame for the spread of the fire. New codes require Class A roofs and specific noncombustible siding.

The Wet Stuff

The wind was so strong on that Sunday that it bent water hose streams 90 degrees, rendering air attacks ineffective. But that wasn’t the only problem with water. Hydrants in Oakland have a three-inch thread outlet, while the state’s standard is two and a half. Most of the local departments had adapters so they could fit with the Oakland hydrants, but the CDF didn’t. And some of the local departments that had the proper adapters got overrun by the fire and left their adapters behind.

  • Oakland Hills Fire 20 Years Later

    10/16/11 | Online Article

    Has an excellent photo collection by Karl Mondon

    Karl Mondon's narrated video explaining the images 20 Years Later: A Photographer's Diary, Inside the Firestorm 10/20/11

    Includes some of Karl's photos of the kids' tile memorial project at the Rockridge, Oakland BART Station

    Kids' memorial project at the Rockridge, Oakland BART Station Kids' memorial project at the Rockridge, Oakland BART Station
  • 20th Anniversary of the Oakland Hills Firestorm

    Photo Gallery from SFgate (No longer online)

  • Remembering the Oakland Firestorm

    10/20/2011 |  Online Article

    Has a nice video tribute to John Grubensky, the Oakland Police officer who perished, and a brief history of the fires in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills, their frequency, periodicity and effects and implications for the future.

Return to top

Horizontal line

Photos, Videos, & Tributes



Return to top

Contributors to this article: J Benshoof

WFF Boots & Wreath logo. Please support the Wildland Firefighter Foundation