Berkeley alum on fighting the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire

It was Sunday, Oct. 20, 1991, in Oakland, California. The heat was miserable. Anne Rockwell, a Berkeley alumna, was at work in her office at the East Bay Regional Park district. “I just remember that it was really hot,” she says. “There was kind of a heavy feeling in the air.” The night before, a small brush fire had ignited in the Berkeley Hills, and by 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, the brush fire had spread to a nearby apartment complex. High winds whipped embers through the air — starting new fires ahead of the original burn. Within an hour, the blaze had crossed two freeways and consumed hundreds of houses.

The Tunnel Fire, more commonly known as the Oakland Hills Fire, would become one of the most devastating wildfires in state history until 2018. It would kill 25 people and burn more than 3,000 homes. Rockwell didn’t know it yet, but she — along with the rest of the park district fire department — would find herself at the center of it all.

This is episode 3, season 5 of the Berkeley Remix podcast, called “Once in a career fire,” about the role of the EBRPD Fire Department in fighting the historic Oakland Hills Fire. It features interviews with Berkeley alumni Anne Rockwell (pictured below) and Paul Miller, who fought on the frontlines of the fire. This three-episode season of Berkeley Remix, produced by the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center, is called “Hidden Heroes.” Each story, set in the East Bay parks, is about people who have made a difference — fighting fires, breaking gender barriers and preserving the land. 

Learn more on the Oral History Center website.

See more photos in the East Bay Regional Park District’s 2011 newsletter.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Read the transcript of Berkeley Remix episode 3, season 5, “Once in a career fire”:

Narrator: It’s late October in Oakland, California — and the heat is miserable. It’s Sunday morning, and Anne Rockwell is at work in her office at the East Bay Regional Park District.

Anne Rockwell: I just remember that it was really hot. There was kind of a heavy feeling in the air. I don’t know that oppressive is quite the right word that I’m looking for, but it was a heavy feeling. It was just kind of a feeling of foreboding, I think, in a lot of ways.

Narrator: The year is 1991. Anne and her husband Stephen Gehrett are both park district employees; and Stephen was enjoying his day off with a round of golf in Alameda.

Stephen Gehrett: I recall being on one of the holes and seeing the flag at Veterans’ Memorial Plaza in Alameda, the flag just being blown straight away, straight out, and saying to my partner that day, “This is a pretty windy day,” and, “Yeah, it is,” and we kept playing, and then we saw smoke in the sky, and that’s when that whole thing started.

Narrator: The night before, a small brush fire had ignited in the Berkeley Hills. Neither Anne nor Stephen had thought anything of it. They were both firefighters for the East Bay Regional Park District, and fires like this were common … and easily put down.

Stephen Gehrett: I didn’t think it was going to be that big. I fully expected that the fire staff, fire crews on hand at the time could handle it. I just expected that. Seemed like that’s the way things went: Get a tone-out; people go; fire gets knocked down; do mop up; and you go home. But, I didn’t have any inkling at all that it was going to be this massive event.

Narrator: By 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, the brush fire had spread to a nearby apartment complex. High winds whipped embers through the air — starting new fires ahead of the original burn. Within an hour, the blaze had crossed two freeways and consumed hundreds of houses.

The Tunnel Fire would become one of the most devastating wildfires in state history until 2018. It would destroy almost 3,000 homes, leaving 25 dead and hundreds injured. Anne and Stephen didn’t know it yet, but they … along with the rest of the park district fire department … would find themselves at the center of it all.

I’m Shanna Farrell, and you’re listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

This season we’re heading to the East Bay Regional Park District for a three part mini-series. All of the episodes are set in the East Park parks and are about people who’ve made a difference. Some are stories that you’re already familiar with, but haven’t heard like this. Other stories you might not know, but should. We’re calling this series “Hidden Heroes.”

In this episode, we explore the role of the district in fighting the historic 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. We’ll be featuring interviews from our East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History project, which is archived in our home at The Bancroft Library.

To understand just how this fire became so deadly, we have to go back to 1972. To another week of unusual fall weather.

John Nicoles: We had a cold spell. I went to attend the Big Game …

Narrator: That’s the big football game between Cal and Stanford, longtime rivals.

John Nicoles: … in the tail end of November in shirt sleeves, in short-sleeve shirt, and a week later, it was below freezing, for a week.

Narrator: John Nicoles was a land surveyor for the park district at the time. And, after that cold spell, he noticed something suspicious about the trees in his survey area.

John Nicoles: It wasn’t immediately obvious that anything had happened. But then what became apparent was that the foliage had all died. The real problem, when push came to shove, the real problem was that the eucalyptus had been frozen.

Narrator: The frost had damaged the eucalyptus trees in Berkeley and Oakland.

John Nicoles: It began to be apparent that these injury places, these damaged places, were an entry point for decay. Then, that’s when the problems began, because you can’t really see the decay.

Narrator: John says the trees looked fine on the surface, but inside many were dead and rotting. And this posed a serious hazard. It’s worth noting that John doesn’t tend to see trees like you and I might — as beautiful fixtures in the natural landscape. He sees them as death traps.

John Nicoles: Sometimes the trees come uprooted. This is probably now eight or ten years ago now, but a group of students on a river rafting trip on the American River, were camped out and an oak tree came uprooted and killed somebody.

Narrator: To John, the dead leaves and rotting branches on the eucalyptus were another catastrophe waiting to happen. Not only could the trees fall on somebody, but …

John Nicoles: All these dead leaves in the crowns, 200 feet up, were an immense fire hazard.

Narrator: Still, not everyone saw it like he did. Plenty of people doubted the trees were even damaged, much less dangerous.

John Nicoles: We don’t have a stethoscope for trees. We can’t take their pulse and so on. You have to make some judgment calls. This led to an incredible turmoil. There were people who said, “Nothing’s dead.” There were people saying, “They’re all dead.” And there, you turn out, the world’s divided into eucalyptus lovers and eucalyptus haters.

Narrator: But John isn’t the kind of person to give up when he recognizes a problem.

John Nicoles: I was kind of a fighter.

Narrator: He made it his mission to cut back the dead and damaged trees.

John Nicoles: What the eucalyptus problem, and the freeze did, was suddenly it became clear you needed to put money into forest management. The park district had never thought of the forest land as something to be managed, whether that’s the redwood land or the eucalyptus land or the oak woodland, these were all just permanent fixtures in the landscape.

Narrator: Suddenly, John was challenging the narrative. The trees of the park district weren’t just static things to be preserved — they were alive, and had to be maintained.

John Nicoles: But boy, you talk about a quantum, a tectonic shift in district philosophy and policy. I remember one occasion I was talking to Jerry Kent about tree hazards, and I said, “Jerry, the trees don’t care about you. They do what they do, and our job is to anticipate that.” That’s the character of the — trees are wonderful. They wouldn’t drop a limb on my head, but indeed, they do.

We had a situation in which a limb fell and injured a woman. There’s this limb; it’s lying on the ground, and it was broken off at the end where it had been killed by the freeze. I said, “Here’s the evidence that this is what’s going on here.”

Narrator: John had the proof he needed to begin removing eucalyptus trees. He assembled a team of workers — he calls them the Euc-Crew. They got to work cutting down the trees.

John Nicoles: Theoretically, this was supposed to be what we call a fuel break wherever there were eucalyptus, we [makes cutting sound] just slicked it off.

Narrator: But the district covers more than 125,000 acres of land over 73 parks. Eliminating all of the dead or damaged eucalyptus from that area was difficult, and time consuming.

John Nicoles: We cut the trees in ’73, and when I left in ’92, we finally almost had a handle on it.

Narrator: By the early 1990s, the Euc-Crew had created a sizable fuel break – clearing a broad area of eucalyptus trees in the Oakland hills. Enough so, that John finally got out of the tree-clearing business. And responsibility for the dying foliage shifted to the park district’s young and growing fire department. Here’s Paul Miller, a ranger who doubled as a firefighter for the district.

Paul Miller: We’d go out and we’d burn off vegetation in some of the parks. We’d, burn off the vegetation along the interface with the neighborhoods so that if a fire started there would be a buffer and it wouldn’t progress into the neighborhoods.

Narrator: The way Paul describes it, things were informal in the early days of the fire department.

Paul Miller: It could be as much or as little as you wanted. If you didn’t call in when there was a response, then it didn’t cost you any time at all.

Narrator: Firefighters were volunteer, and often recruited from other places around the district. Michael Avalos was another member at the time.

Michael Avalos: There were, of course, a lot of rangers that were firefighters, but there were carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, clericals — a lot of different job classifications.

Narrator: Because park district firefighters had lots of other commitments, participation could be erratic. Stephen Gehrett says people wouldn’t always show up.

Stephen Gehrett: Requirements were to respond to a fire, if you were called. Most times, I responded; many times I didn’t.

Narrator: But, for the most part, this worked. Park district employees chipped in where they could, and stayed home when they couldn’t.

Anne Rockwell: I didn’t go to fires that would impact my work at all until I went to the Oakland fire, and even then, that was on a Sunday, and I waited for a lot of tone outs to happen before I finally went.

Narrator: That’s Anne Rockwell, again. She says on the day of the Tunnel Fire, early calls to Oakland sounded like any routine burn. A small brush fire had started on Saturday afternoon. Michael was one of the first firefighters to respond.

Michael Avalos: I was in there on Saturday, the first time that it went off, and we helped Oakland put it out. We had left hose line there on Saturday, and on Sunday, there was a call to go and pick up the hose that we had left. It had been a long season up to that point, and my niece was a week old and I hadn’t seen her yet, so I said, “I’ve put in enough time this year. I’m going to meet my niece.”

Narrator: Michael was about to head home, when the chief came back with some news. Winds had picked up, and the fire had reignited.

Michael Avalos: Our chief came back and said, “They need us back out on the line, and I’m going to let you guys make the decision. I know you’ve been working hard. It’s up to you. If you don’t want to go back” — and we, of course, said, “Yeah, we’re going.” We went back out on the line for another two days, and it was some very interesting firefighting.

Narrator: By Sunday afternoon, the true scope of the Tunnel Fire was becoming clear. Ashes were falling on Candlestick Park. Anne and Stephen had left their kids with Anne’s mom and were heading — separately — into the blaze.

Stephen Gehrett: By the time I got there, things were pretty much crazy. Some Oakland Fire guy said, “Follow this motorcycle cop through the tunnel,” and I was in my little Volkswagen Bug. And so I started following this motorcycle cop, and he disappeared in the smoke and the haze of the tunnel. Before I got to the tunnel, he disappeared in the smoke, and I thought, I have no clue what’s on the other side of this; I can’t go this way. So I turned around and I came back down to Claremont. There were so many people freaked out. I just remember residents standing there, “What can I do? Can I go with you to help? My house is up there,” kind of thing. And so I got up there and my assignment was to drive the water tanker, and I did that for our next couple of days.

Narrator: Stephen discovered that getting water to the fire was harder than he’d expected. The hydrants in Oakland didn’t fit all of the hoses available — making his tanker one of the few sources of water on the hill.

Meanwhile, Anne was battling another element: the raging wind.

Anne Rockwell: I was assigned to work with Jack Kenny, and we called it the Jack Attack. We were defending the KPFA radio towers, and … as I was driving, I remember seeing the wind blowing these embers across the freeway, across Highway 13, and I saw a pine tree just explode, and I thought, “Wow, what am I doing?”

Narrator: The wind was whipping flames into the air faster than 70 miles per hour. The only thing keeping the fire from spreading was the highway itself, and not for long. Embers met the dry, dead branches of eucalyptus below.

Stephen Gehrett: I had never seen them burned before. I didn’t know that they were so oily that they would catch fire and spread fire quickly. It wasn’t until the Tunnel Fire that it really dawned on me that they were a hazard out there just waiting to ignite.

Narrator: No longer contained by the highway, the fire tore down the hill, consuming eucalyptus trees and houses in a matter of seconds. Stephen would later learn that the fire had destroyed seventeen pumping stations in the Oakland system. It had begun to feel almost impossible to stop.

Stephen Gehrett: What really shook me was when the battalion chief from Oakland died. When I heard over the radio that somebody actually had died, that was awful, really, because the firefighting just seemed like, well, if it’s too hot, you got to leave. There’s always a safety way, a safe route out.

Narrator: As the afternoon wore on, back-up had arrived in the form of 400 firefighting units, some from as far north as Oregon. But with the new reinforcements came additional confusion.

Anne Rockwell: There was so much confusion and so much activity on the radio. We were used to being on our own station, just with the fire talking to other fire, but now we were talking with other departments. It really kept your heart pumping, I think, because I’d hear about people reporting from Claremont Canyon — that’s where our daycare provider lived — and I thought, oh wow, I hope they got out.

Narrator: For Stephen, the radio updates were a reminder that Anne was also fighting the blaze.

Stephen Gehrett: For me, having my spouse on the fire was a little disconcerting, just because I didn’t know where she was, and didn’t know what she was up against. That unknown was scary.

Narrator: Eventually, he found Anne when he delivered water to the KPFA radio towers where she was stationed. After that …

Anne Rockwell: I knew he was driving the water tender, so I knew he was okay. I knew if something happened to him, somebody would let me know.

Narrator: As night began to fall, circumstances shifted. The winds died down, granting both Anne and Stephen a brief reprieve.

Anne Rockwell: I was on the line all night. I think I got a chance to rest when we were at Broadway Terrace. There was a house that had a hot tub underneath the deck and we used it to wash our faces, and we all had bandannas, and they were just completely — we just turned the water black, and just rinsed off our stuff and rinsed off our faces and hands, because we were just completely filthy and covered with poison oak, and soot, and sweat.

Narrator: It would take all night before the fire was completely suppressed. But the end was finally in sight. And with it — a clearer view of the devastation.

Anne Rockwell: I remember watching the sun come up and looking out at the devastation, and thinking I had never seen anything like this in my life. There weren’t even hulks of cars left. There was just nothing. There was puddles and ash. There were places where there was literally puddles of metal. There were, during the night though, I can remember the pilot lights from the gas lines at people’s houses that were glowing. You could see them all around, and when the sun came up, you’d see one or two houses that were completely untouched, and then just nothing around them.

I think in the morning, we went back to — the steam train parking lot had been set up as a resting station. People came and had all kinds of food set up in that parking lot, and there were cots, and I think that’s …

Stephen Gehrett: That’s …

Anne Rockwell: … where we connected. I just remember all those people. It was like seeing what you see on the news when the Red Cross shows up, because that’s exactly what it was, but I’d never been on the receiving end of that where people were taking care of us for going out and fighting the fire.

Narrator: At the resting station, Anne and Stephen began to connect with their fellow park district firefighters. Michael Avalos was there, too, and remembers the atmosphere as firefighters from all over the city emerged from the night.

Michael Avalos: I think it was a big unifying thing. It was a life-changing thing. It was what a lot of people would call a career fire, and hopefully, you don’t go through something like that more than once in a career.

Anne Rockwell: It was somber because that was the first time — oh I’m speaking for the whole fire department maybe, but for all of us to have dealt with death as part of—we were used to fighting the fires in the woodlands, so we didn’t see any people’s homes. We saw an occasional structure burn, but we didn’t see people lose their homes, and we didn’t hear about people dying because of a fire, or getting trapped and all the panic that was going on. People were exhausted, and we were all awestruck by what we’d been through, and I think it was just settling in what a phenomenal moment this was.

Michael Avalos: It was bonding, of course. You’d been through life and death circumstances. It was very bonding.

Narrator: But Stephen also recognized where things could have improved. Starting with his early response to the fire.

Anne Rockwell: I think what I would have done differently had I known is, I would have gone a lot earlier, and in fact, I did start going to more fires after that, because I felt like it was more important to support the fire fighting group at that point.

Narrator: In the weeks and months after the Tunnel Fire, many involved would reflect on their roles fighting the blaze. These reflections extended beyond personal commitments — and formed the basis of fire defense strategy in the bay area. People remembered the delayed responses … the mismatched fire hydrants … the radio confusion.

And, of course, they remembered the eucalyptus.

Anne Rockwell: I think one of the things that can be learned is about — managing the eucalyptus forest around us, managing for trees, not just eucalyptus, with all the years of drought and all the dead pines — that people need to take that seriously, if they want to continue to live in the environment. You have narrow roads. You need to take care of the brushes around your home. Just seeing all over different parts of the state where these fires are so devastating, all this came after drought, series of drought years and big wind years, and so the time is now for people to really prepare for their escape routes, and like I say, to prepare for a different-looking environment.

Stephen Gehrett: I think homeowners have awakened to look at their houses and get rid of that shake roof, sweep all those dead pine needles off their property, that there’s this learning curve, and people have embraced that and know that the possibility of fire is only getting greater every day, it’s not getting less. I think people have learned a lesson on a lot of different aspects of how to approach living in a fire-prone area.

Narrator: Within the park district, many would also realize that if John Nicoles hadn’t fought to manage the eucalyptus trees and create fuel breaks, the fire could have been much worse.

Anne Rockwell: I think it wasn’t until some time had gone by, maybe when we had our critical incident debriefings, that I felt a lot of pride in the way that people had handled themselves, and how they had gotten out of situations. I was proud to be part of the team, I think, to be part of that whole department, and that’s why I still think that we joke about it to say “we were on the Jack Attack.” I felt like I was really on a team and that we pulled together, and took on a task that saved all of the East Bay.

Narrator: Thanks for listening to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 1954, the Center records and preserves the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world. This episode was produced by Francesca Fenzi and Shanna Farrell.

This episode features interviews with Anne Rockwell, Stephen Gehrett, Michael Avalos, Paul Miller, and John Nicoles that are part of the East Bay Regional Park District Parkland Oral History Project. A special thanks to the district and Beverly Ortiz. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. I’m your host, Shanna Farrell. Thank you for listening to the Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time!