Archive for the ‘Oakland hazards’ Category

The fire zone

20 October 2011

oakland hills fire

I was across the bay on October 19, 1991, doing a freelance job at some client whose name I forget. It was a hot day, and I saw a tall plume of smoke in the Oakland hills. The fire people worked on it, and that evening as I headed back across the bay it seemed to be over. But the following day, 20 years ago today, an ember got loose and took out a huge swath of the hills with some three thousand homes on it. It was a terrifying day, like something out of Lord of the Rings. Thick smoke covered the whole sky, and the east wind wouldn’t let up. The city was at nature’s mercy until the winds turned, late in the afternoon. For years afterward we would find pieces of charred wood in our garden that had dropped from the sky that day.

Apparently the same thing had happened in 1970. Historians reminded us that it happened in 1923, too. Before that the native inhabitants made a practice of torching the hills often to keep the land clear. But in the aftermath of 1991 the hills were hastily repopulated and reforested by residents whose driving urge was to make the pain stop. They had the eager help of insurance companies, placing their bets on the enduring value of view lots.

Today these fireprone hills are platted out for houses forever, even the impossible slopes of Charing Cross Road. Now the hills are in an unsustainable cycle of building expensive homes cheek by jowl on inadequate streets, growing inertia as fuel builds up and preparations lapse, one dire day of conflagration, and heedless rebuilding. The earthquake cycle is just a slower version of this fire cycle. If madness is doing the same things in the face of futility, then Oakland has gone mad. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Advertisements

Water underground

4 January 2011

In today’s Chronicle, the Oakland writer Jon Carroll was musing about fire: “Usually it’s an obedient little creature, about the size of a cocker spaniel—until one day it turns into the largest, meanest cocker spaniel on Earth, and there goes the house.” Water, another of the four ancient elements, is the same way.

water main burst

Water is great in metered doses, delivered by tank and faucet. But “water dissolving, water removing” is no tamer than fire. Some time you should see firsthand what keeps it constrained: giant dams and stout mains, treatment plants, intricate feeder lines. The antique examples of dams and treatment facilities in Oakland are not the state of things today. Every now and then something breaks, like this line under Santa Clara Avenue in 2005, and a hint of chaos leaks out.

Last week a handyman had our water turned off for most of the day, with no word about when he would finish. As sunset approached we panicked enough to go out and buy 48 pounds of jugged water. But we didn’t need to use most of it. And so another bit of our earthquake preparedness is in place, a little lurch of progress. After the next big-enough one there will be water, water everywhere.

The ancients had a handle on things with their notion of four elements. Fire and water are worthy of the status, both full of motion and power. As for air, every weather report vouches for it. But it took someone more observant than most of us to see earth the same way and sum it all up as panta rhei, everything flows.

Drainage

18 December 2010

Oakland is a fine town unless it rains too much. Then we have to worry about all the water.

drainage

All things considered, Oakland’s landscape would prefer to be steep, forested hills raised by tectonics along the Hayward fault and gentle coastal plains that absorb the sediment washed off those hills. It’s a rich recipe that produces redwoods in the heights and forage and fruit in the vales. But with impervious roads and homes carpeting the upper slopes, we increase the runoff and undermine our own infrastructure. People like the homeowners above Broadway Terrace run flexible plastic lines over the edge of their properties to put the problem out of mind. But if you walk the road, you’ll find fresh gullies that will work their way uphill to the source of the problem regardless. Landslides will probably follow.

Ruins of the 1991 fire

7 July 2010

As you explore Oakland, you come upon places where something has been erased and not yet replaced.

oakland hills fire

The Oakland Hills fire of October 1991 left these, the first on Acacia Avenue and the other two on Roble Road.

oakland hills fire

There must be reasons for each of these remaining ruins after almost twenty years. But here they are, some quite public and others in quiet privacy. People pass and pay them no mind. Another few decades and the traces might be gone.

oakland hills fire

I got an odd request last year: Henry K. Lee, author of Presumed Dead, asked me to visit the spot in the Oakland Hills where a notorious murderer put the body of his victim. He wanted to know how a geologist would describe the ground there. It was shale, crumbling and easily dug. The place was shrouded in oak woods, but everyday life was within earshot: lawn equipment whining, bicyclists conversing, dogs. The site—which I will not call a grave—was still being visited. But its traces should be left to vanish.