Berkeley Firefighters Defeat Two Blazes, Tackle a Third

By Richard Brenneman
Friday June 13, 2008 - 02:50:00 PM
A helicopter drops water scooped from Lake Temescal onto the smouldering embers of a fire that consumed two acres of hillside Thursday near the site where the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire ignited.
By Richard Brenneman
A helicopter drops water scooped from Lake Temescal onto the smouldering embers of a fire that consumed two acres of hillside Thursday near the site where the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire ignited.

Berkeley firefighters found themselves fighting flames on two fronts Thursday, one at the site of the disastrous 1991 hills fire, the other in West Berkeley. 

The first call came at 11:18 a.m., when callers reported flames rising from the brush near Buckingham Boulevard, Tunnel Road and Hiller Drive on the Berkeley side of the Caldecott Tunnel entrance. 

One engine company and two chief officers from Berkeley joined the firelines as they helped contain the blaze to two acres, aided in part by the lack of the stiff breezes which had fanned the catastrophic fire 17 years earlier. 

Oakland Fire Department Lt. David Brue said the fire “was contained at 1:45 p.m.” when “we started to release some of the crews. 

At its peak, 60 to 70 firefighters from Oakland, Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Parks district were battling the flames, which had threatened townhouses on the slopes above the blaze.  

“Some of the condo buildings were scorched on the outside,” said Berkeley Deputy Fire Chief Gil Dong. 

Two helicopters ran relays to douse the flames, scooping up water from Lake Temescal. By the time the blaze was contained, no structures had been damaged, Brue said. 

“We will maintain crews on the site through the night to make sure it doesn’t flare up,” said the Oakland firefighter. 

He said the cause of the blaze remains under investigation. “We know where it started,” he said, “but not how.” 

Deputy Chief Dong said Berkeley sent two engine companies and two chief officers to Oakland, only to have the two officers recalled an hour later and rushed to the 1900 block of McGee Avenue, where two homes and a van were ablaze. 

“A California Highway Patrol officer saw smoke coming from the rear of one of the houses and pounded on the door. He notified the occupant that the rear of his home was on fire,” said Dong. 

The fire went to two alarms, drawing in 25 firefighters, including three chief officer, five engine companies, two trucks and a pair of ambulances. 

The fire apparently started in the residence at 1933 McGee and spread to the home at 1931. The van, parked in a narrow driveway between the two homes, also fell victim to the flames. 

One resident received minor injuries during an effort to notify other residents of the houses, said the deputy chief. 

The van belonged to a workman who was installing a heater in the home at 1931 McGee, and while several recent fires in Berkeley have resulted from torchwork used in installing pipes, that wasn’t the case with Thursday’s fire, said Deputy Chief Dong. 

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation pending interviews with residents who were unavailable Thursday. 

Three occupants were displaced by the flames. The damage is estimated at $300,000. 

Berkeley firefighters are also busy fighting yet another fire—this one in Butte County, where the Humboldt Fire—name after a ridge and not the town or county—has consumed scores of homes and doubled in size in less than 24 hours. 

“We sent one engine company last night, and altogether, Alameda County has provided 21 engine companies and three chief officers,” said Deputy Chief Dong. 

The Berkeley crew was assigned to save threatened homes in the town of Paradise, he said. 

Warm temperatures and a dry winter have led to an unusually early start of the fire season, and Berkeley’s firefighters—like their colleagues around the state—anticipate a long, hot summer.