Residents Assess Damage, Cleanup; Look to Future
Oakland, the city that sustained the highest human toll in the 1989 earthquake, now must rise from California's worst fire; perhaps 2,000 homes were lost in the blaze. OAKLAND FIRE
LYNDE MARTELLA was particularly fond of his Browning shotgun with the "full choke" and his antique side-cutter saw. Alice Martella cherished her mahogany spinet piano and all the scores - Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra - she used to play on it.All are gone now, victims of the worst fire in California history, one that claimed a large and expensive slice of this long-suffering city, including the house the Martellas had lived in for 40 years. As crews extinguish that last of the fire's wrath, Oakland, the Martellas, and thousands of people like them are now looking to the future - and the Herculean task of cleanup and recovery. It is a role that is becoming painfully familiar to this city. The earthquake that shook the San Francisco area two years ago, almost to the day, left its worst signature in Oakland - a collapsed double-decker freeway. Now this east bay city has to lift itself above the scar of a fire that, even though smaller in scope, was frightening in its destructiveness. Indeed, the conflagration that started out as a small brush fire ended up destroying - "vaporizing" as one resident puts it - entire neighborhoods in the hills of Oakland, many populated with platinum-priced homes.
'Shotgun shells' Mrs. Martella says her neighborhood looks like Pompeii. Husband Lynde says that when the flames, fed by 30-mile-per-hour winds and 92-degree temperatures, roared through their area Sunday afternoon, it sounded like "shotgun shells going off - the force of the fire alone could have blown your house down." The official statistics: at least 14 dead, more than 1,800 acres burned, perhaps 2,000 homes and 500 apartment units destroyed, several billion dollars in damage. The fire ranks as one of the worst in United States history and the worst in California since the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. A June 1990 blaze in Santa Barbara destroyed 470 homes, and a 1923 fire razed 584 homes in Berkeley. Still, city officials are trying to accentuate the positive: "This is not a situation where there is just hopelessness and despair," says Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris. If there is an up-side it is that local residents and agencies are becoming savvy at working their way through the federal relief maze after two disasters in two years. As one city official put it: "We have gained a lot of familiarity with state and federal regulations and processes." Residents returning to ashen homes for the first time express a mixture of heartbreak and hope. Some simply sob at the site of their half-million-dollar homes turned to soot. Many have sought mental-health counseling. Other use humor to ease the pain. Pat and Austin Brewin have lived in the Oakland Hills since 1974 and raised several children there. Nothing is left of their three-story stucco house but a chimney and metal filing cabinet. Mrs. Brewin says she feels fortunate to be alive, though. On Sunday, she looked out at a seemingly modest brush fire a mile away from their house and joked to her daughter: "If it comes over here and burns our garage down, we won't have to clean it." Thirty minutes later the flames were licking at their house and the family escaped with only the clothes on their backs. "The earthquake was scary," says Brewin. "But it was nothing like this." Myles and Carole Wringle were on vacation when the fire broke out. They returned to their hotel Sunday night to a spindle full of frantic messages. By the time they returned to Oakland late Monday, they still hadn't seen the home they had lived in for 12 years, but were told by friends it was gone. "At least we have the two weeks of clothes we took with us on vacation," says Mrs. Wringle. Many residents had to play a real-life version of that fantasy most people only jest about: What would you take if you only had two minutes to get out of your house? For Mrs. Martella it was jewelry, financial notes, and her prize music sheets. What she left behind, though, was the house and furnishings - and a lifetime of memories. "I am going to get through this," she says defiantly.
Questions after the fact The destructiveness of the 1991 Oakland fire was the product of an unusual set of circumstances: headstrong October winds, low humidity, high temperatures, and five years of drought. A cold snap last year killed some of the trees in the area and turned them into kindling. Pointed questions are being asked in the wake of the blaze as they usually are after any disaster. Some residents, for instance, want to know why the small brush fire that broke out on Saturday and ultimately sparked the inferno was not completely put out. Fire officials thought it was. Some politicians are renewing their call for a ban on wood shingle roofs. Others say a disaster was perhaps inevitable given the density of development in the eucalyptus-studded hills above the city. Despite all the anger, there has been plenty of unselfishness, too. Heartened by the generosity she received after the earthquake, one woman passed out flowers to everyone at an emergency shelter. Other opened their homes to those displaced by the blaze. Lita Kroweck was one of dozens who volunteered time at a shelter because, she said, "I know four people who lost their homes - I had to do something."