What we learned in the Oakland Hills Fire

Berkeley resident Jim Beatty stands hopelessly with a garden hose as homes burn out of control in the Berkeley and Oakland hills area on Sunday, Oct. 20, 1991 in Berkeley, California. A wind-driven fire roared through an upscale residential area in the hills above Oakland on Sunday, engulfing hundreds of homes and killing five people, authorities said. (AP Photo/Kevin Rice)


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More than a quarter of a century later, Oakland residents Don Margolis and David Cunningham remember well the day in 1991 when they lost their homes to the Oakland Hills Fire that killed 25 people and destroyed nearly 3,500 homes. In separate interviews, Margolis and Cunningham recalled the lessons learned in the wake of that tragic day.

Margolis, now an attorney for the University of California Office of the President, says he and his wife Anne did not initially experience panic or great anxiety, perhaps for a couple of reasons.

“First, we were fortunate not to have a harrowing escape,” he said. He and Anne were in San Francisco for brunch that day. “We had hours to watch and wait, and then depart long before flames reached our neighborhood.”

“Once we arrived at home,” Margolis says, “we saw the fire clear across the canyon, near its point of origin to the north, blowing west toward the Claremont Hotel, not toward us. So we assumed we were safe.”

That morning, Cunningham and his wife Claire were at church, and saw smoke coming from their neighborhood. They quickly returned home and discovered small fires in their neighbors’ backyard, started by embers blown across the freeway a half-mile away. They expected firefighters to arrive at any time, but Cunningham started hosing down the roof as a precautionary measure.

“I felt sort of ridiculous being up there,” he says, “but we could see the smoke and fire moving with great force across the hills near us. In fact, some transformers went up with a boom. Then I knew we were in trouble.”

Margolis recalls seeing his daughter, just shy of two years old, standing upstairs, staring out the window at the hillside where the conflagration began, repeating “Fire, fire,” the flames a subject of curiosity, not fear.

“This was when Anne decided it would be best to whisk her away from the smoke, over to my sister’s house in Montclair.” The Margolis’ five-year-old son was out of the neighborhood, at a friend’s house, for a sleep-over.

Like Cunningham, Margolis climbed onto the roof with a hose, figuring this would be extra insurance against the remote risk of conflagration.

“As I watched the water turn instantly to steam when it hit the hot tiles, I realized I was engaged in a futile effort,” Margolis says. “I went down into the house, and grabbed some photo albums and papers, nothing particularly special.” The one thing he says he wishes he had remembered to take were the videos of his kids as babies and toddlers.

Margolis says that what helped his family get through the days immediately after the fire was “the sweetness and caring of family and friends.” A connection to other fire survivors developed in the weeks after the fire, when he and Anne met with their neighbors to discuss community approaches to debris removal.

The Cunninghams became connected with other fire survivors from their street in a very special way.

“We exchanged information and talked a lot about what we had learned from our insurance reps and other sources. We saw we could help each other by little bits of information each of us had learned.”

Like the other survivors, Margolis and Cunningham had to deal with insurance companies to replace their homes.

“Resist the urge to settle early with your insurer,” Margolis says. “Insurers typically entice their insureds with an early offer. Patience and documentation of your claim will increase your ultimate recovery.”

After the Hills Fire, insurers brought adjusters in from out-of-state, some of whom, Margolis says, seemed not versed in local construction costs.

“A patient, persistent, and insistent approach to negotiating your claim is important,” Margolis says. “Consider retaining an estimator to buttress your construction cost claim.”

Cunningham says, “Do not sign or agree to anything until you and your spouse have discussed it. Also ask for input from other neighbors, financial advisers or attorneys. Sharing information this way with other fire victim neighbors or groups really helps.”

Cunningham says his insurer offered a “quick settlement’ and sent a check for about a third of the value of what it took to rebuild his home.

“Our insurance agent quit returning our calls. I joined a group of people insured by the same company, and we learned many tricks they tried to pull and how to counter them. This was because we shared information and got the general picture of our insurer’s strategy.”

“The best investment we made was to hire a lawyer finally to deal with the insurance company,” Cunningham says. “Then we actually got a fair settlement.”

As for contractors, Margolis emphasized the need for multiple bids and suggests owners consider a design-build firm, to avoid having to deal with an architect and an unrelated contractor.

Margolis and his wife included in their contract penalties for lateness in completion, building in a reasonable cushion. “This is particularly important where any given contractor may have multiple projects going in a region with many rebuilds going on at once. Contractors tend to pay the most attention to their biggest job, and your job may not be their biggest.”

“There are plenty of contractors, so take your time,” Cunningham says. “I would heartily recommend hiring an architect with some engineering experience. You are building from the ground up and need some good advice to make your home well-designed and safe.”

Cunningham also stresses the importance of good mental health.

“If you can, get some counseling or therapy on this. Survivors ashamed or depressed, angry or hopeless. A neutral, professional person can be very helpful,” he says. “Not your friend or family.”

Cunningham also warns of issues at work.

“Let your employer know of the extent of how this disaster has affected you. Do not act as if this is just a mere inconvenience.”

Cunningham says he tried to continue his work, which included frequent travel, without truly letting his employer know what was happening. That strategy eventually cost him his job.

“Living in a new rental, with two very unhappy kids and a depressed wife, dealing with all sorts of challenges – debris removal, lists, incompetent adjusters, looters, no clothes – made it impossible to do my employment work well. I eventually lost my job because of that. I just could not handle it all.”

The surprise, Cunningham says, was that it was not the end of the world to lose his job. “I discovered a new possibility from those who understood and eventually hired me.”

As for mitigating possible harm from a new disaster, Margolis recommends keeping brush under control, considering fire-resistant materials, and keeping smoke detectors well maintained. Cunningham stresses the importance of taking photos of your property and belongings, with captions, and sending them to “the cloud” and to your insurer.

Asked what message he would convey to individuals affected by Napa/Sonoma wildfires, Margolis said, “It was not your fault. Do not guilt-trip yourself. There was nothing you could have done differently to avoid the loss. Bad things happen to good people. Avoid recrimination and regret. And finally, if you and your loved ones avoided death or injury, you are infinitely more fortunate than those who did not.”

“Stay close to your family and, as much as possible, make decisions together and with the input of your best advisers,” says Cunningham. “There are many capable people ready to help.”

Margolis concludes, “Perhaps this is trite, but one of the things that sustained and buoyed us was our almost immediate realization that we were exquisitely fortunate compared to many. We were not injured. We did not know any of the 25 who perished, or any of the dozens who were injured. We escaped with lost things, most of which were replaceable. We counted our blessings.”