As part of KQED’s coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Oakland firestorm, Rachel Dornhelm talked to Mark Hoffman, currently the city’s Interim Fire Chief who in 1991 was a lieutenant on the front lines.
The conversation occurred just above Hillcrest School in the Oakland Hills last Tuesday, on the corner of Margurite and Hermosa, where firefighters established a line after having to abandon a spot at which they first tried to make a stand just down the street. At that location, Hoffman said, they watched a whole cul-de-sac of houses go up, throwing all their hoses haphazardly into a truck before racing away.
Hoffman talked about his assignment that day: coordinating 50-60 firefighters in an effort to extinguish the conflagration. Transcript below the audio.
Oakland Interim Fire Chief Hoffman recalls the 1991 firestorm
I was off duty on the day the fire broke out. I became aware of it early on when my parents called me.
I responded to my normal assignment. I was coordinating all the people who showed up. It looked like a hiring hall. There were probably 50-60 firefighters out in front of the station holding their equipment. A handful were Oakland firefighters and a lot were from other agencies
If you drive around this neighborhood now, you’ll see all the homes this way that were saved. And we just gave up this one area; we did not have the resources to protect everything. We started to deploy lines, and I started to put together a game plan.
The gentleman who lived in that house at the time ran up and said thank God you’re here, are you going to be able to save my house? I said no, you’re on the wrong side, I’ve given up this block. We’re protecting this side and keeping the fire from going down the hill.
He didn’t even skip a beat and said “well how can I help you?”
I choke up even now. You’re told you’re going to lose all your belongings, and to process it almost immediately and to say well how can I help my neighbors? This guy wins the award for selfless acts.
When we were up here fighting the fire we were wearing heavy coats and boots and helmets; we didn’t have the right equipment to do wildland suppression effectively. A lot of fatigue, a lot of dehydration occurred because of how we were attired. And other than maybe half a day talking about how fires sometimes occur in the wilderness, when I came in way back when that was all the training I had in the way of wildland firefighting.
Now hopefully with vegetation management and dependable space and better building materials it won’t impact the residents as severely, but it still will impact some residents and it will burn at some point again.
We’re training better and we’re vigilant. We’ll just find out if it’s enough.