OAKLAND — A report prepared after a 1970 brush fire that destroyed 37 homes here warned Oakland officials that conditions in the city's wooded, densely populated hills invited a catastrophe like the inferno that claimed 23 lives this week.
The report triggered a campaign to clear overgrown brush, uproot eucalyptus trees and sweep pine needles off roofs, said Oakland City Councilwoman Marge Gibson Haskell, who co-chaired the citizen's task force that issued the warning.
But such precautions were abandoned after about five years as fears about the fire danger faded, she said. "People just forgot," Gibson Haskell, who lost two homes in this week's blaze, said in an interview Thursday. "After five years, I would bring it up and people would just laugh."
Retired Oakland Fire Chief Godwin Taylor, in an interview Thursday, confirmed that fire officials had long feared a catastrophic blaze in the canyons that burned this week. Their concern heightened as city officials permitted more homes to be built in the area of thick woods and narrow roads, even after the 1970 fire that he helped fight, Taylor said.
"We used to talk about that all the time," said Taylor, who retired Feb. 15 after 37 years with the Oakland Fire Department, the last four as chief. "It (this fire) was going to happen sooner or later. In fact we thought it would happen sooner than this."
People forget about the danger as a fire fades from memory, he said, and many residents rebuilt after the 1970 fire with wood shake roofs.
"Everybody has known about shake roofs for years--I don't understand it," Taylor said. "Their attitude is 'we have a right to burn down our own houses.' "
Meanwhile, the search for victims and for clues to the fire's cause continued Thursday in the rubble left by California's worst wildfire, which caused an estimated $5-billion damage. Officials also sounded an alarm about serious mudslides that could result if the rain forecast for the Bay Area today and Saturday arrives.
Charred gasoline cans were visible Thursday on a construction site in a steep canyon where the blaze erupted, and there were reports that workers were seen burning debris shortly before a fire broke out Saturday. That small blaze was quickly controlled but was reignited by swirling winds on Sunday, causing the conflagration.
Arson investigators said two workers and the contractor who hired them have been questioned and denied responsibility for the fire, but the city declined to release further details. Oakland Fire Chief P. Lamont Ewell said the origin of the fire is known, and has called it "suspicious" in nature, but has declined to elaborate.
"I can only say we are still investigating it," Oakland Fire Marshal Jerry Blueford said Thursday.
Open burning is illegal in Oakland, fire officials said, and violations can lead to fines and jail terms.
The disaster's death toll was reduced to 23 Thursday after authorities said one victim had been counted twice, and the number of people missing was cut sharply to two. The fire, feared to be the costliest in U.S. history, left 148 injured and destroyed or seriously damaged 3,400 houses, apartments and condominiums.
More than 5,000 people were left homeless, but most have moved in with friends, checked into hotels or taken apartments. The supply of vacant two- and three-bedroom apartments in the East Bay has vanished, according to reports.
Police continued to limit access to the charred neighborhoods Thursday because of dangers posed by fallen power lines and other hazards. Eleven looters were arrested, said Rick Noble, a spokesman at a city emergency operations center.
The torrent of criticism aimed at the Oakland Fire Department from bitter residents abated somewhat as victims emerged from their numbed state and turned to weaving their lives back together.
Nonetheless, Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris asked the state Office of Emergency Services to investigate charges that the department had mishandled the disaster, a City Hall spokesman said.
The blaze raced across grassland and spread from the tops of bone-dry pine and eucalyptus trees that were strung like wicks across the ridge tops in the Berkeley Hills, and erupted in the same area as the 1970 fire, city documents show.
In 1972, a blue-ribbon citizens task force formed by the East Bay Regional Parks District issued its report recommending that the city undertake an aggressive campaign to reduce fire hazards in the vulnerable hills, Councilwoman Gibson Haskell said.
Two years later, Oakland's new general plan addressed the potential for blazes in the hills, which are defined as the heart of the city's "critical fire hazard area."
"The area is either wooded, covered by grass and brush or developed with wooden structures," the plan says. "Each of these situations results in extreme vulnerability in an outbreak of fire."