Archive for the ‘Oakland hazards’ Category

Fire on the mountain

13 June 2008

hiller highlands fire

Yesterday there was a fairly small fire in a treacherous place, the Hiller Highlands neighborhood. There was confusion in the media accounts I saw, but here is the correct version, as you can see in this view from across the freeway this morning. The streets, from top to bottom, are Charing Cross Road, Tunnel Road, Caldecott Lane and Route 24. (A typo in the Tribune, “Charring Cross Road,” may give you grim amusement.) The blaze began on Tunnel where street work took place a few months ago, and nearly reached Charing Cross. As I shot this photo, fire crews were still combing the burn area in search of embers.

The hills love fire, and the ecosystem is adapted to it, but civilization here is not. Given that we have irreversibly encroached on the hills by permitting residential construction there, we’re stuck with the price in dollars and lives in perpetuity. Not even the next major earthquake on the Hayward fault, less than a kilometer west, will change this even though the whole neighborhood would likely burn down again, just like 1991, if it happened today.

Yesterday not an hour before the fire started, I was standing on Grizzly Peak Boulevard looking down at this part of town and sensing just how dry everything is. Instead of coming down through here, as I have before, I walked down through the Grandview neighborhood to its north. Upper Grandview is an uncanny place, having been wiped out in the 1991 fire and disneyfied since. Today I was going to visit the fire site, but I got this shot because instead I took the opportunity to try the fire road above Broadway that ends overlooking the North Oakland Regional Sports Center. If you visit the park, have a look at the fire-resistant garden there. The rocks are mapped as undifferentiated Great Valley Sequence and are mostly an undistinguished gray sandstone.


Sulfur mine creek

25 May 2008

Lion Creek drains Laundry Canyon in the Leona Heights and Crestmont neigborhoods as well as the former Leona Quarry lands. It runs through Mills College, past Evergreen Cemetery, and into the bay at 66th Avenue — it’s the stagnant creek you see from BART just north of the Coliseum.

This is one strand of its headwaters, coming out of a former pyrite mine at the end of McDonell Avenue. The local chapter of the Society for Industrial Archeology says about this mine, the Leona Heights mine, “From the 1890’s to the mid 1930’s, iron pyrite was mined here and at the nearby Alma mine. It was processed into sulfuric acid at the Stege Works of Stauffer Chemical in Richmond (and other sites).” The photo was taken in 2003; I think it’s a little better today. The orange is iron oxides, not especially poisonous, but it looks awful. As I imperfectly understand it, sulfuric acid in the drainage water drops this mineral as it is neutralized. The acid comes from sulfur-eating bacteria in the mine environment.

Yes, Oakland has its own example of the same acid mine drainage that plagues the Appalachian states and many other lands. Every place the pioneers came to, they began mining everything they could, because that was the only way to build civilization. Sulfur is essential for gunpowder, and pyrite was the readiest source. Coal came from the Contra Costa hills, mercury from San Jose and from points north, lime from the San Mateo coast (and the local shellmounds), rock of all kinds from the Oakland Hills. This place was rich in timber and pasturage, we all know, but rich in minerals too.

Boom disneyfied

14 December 2007


The Hiller Highlands neighborhood was wiped clean by the October 1991 Oakland Hills fire. Once a quarry site, it later became a woodsy enclave of cottages. Then all that was wiped out, and an architectural monoculture succeeded it, the precious lots built to the edges with large structures—SUV homes—financed by insurance money. The area will not achieve any charm for many decades, if ever.

This is what the big Hayward fault earthquake will do, only the transformation will be a hundred times larger and extend up and down the East Bay. And it will affect the flats as well. That is why I try, every single day, to take pleasure in Oakland as it is. One day, in the twinkling of an eye, it will be gone, or changed irrevocably.

Hazards of the high hills

7 December 2007

Last week I climbed from my place in the flats up to Skyline Drive, a gain of about 1400 feet in elevation. My house is a hundred years old; the houses on Skyline are new. My house is conventional and built on firm, level ground; the Skyline houses are contrived and installed in hostile settings.


The views are grand when the weather permits, and it’s a pleasant thing to look up and see lights nestled among the hills at night. But I deplore almost everything else about the houses in the high hills. Sure, much of my attitude is cultural—I was raised in sociable lowland street grids with friendly neighbors, where people walked and bicycled and threw block parties. Skyline is different, a string of isolated fortress dwellings that rubs me wrong. Okay, not my style. Part of my problem is aesthetics. These homes have nothing to say to the commons; they exist only to flatter their inhabitants and frame for their owners the views that they ruin for everyone else.

But I oppose them politically too: I deplore the hazards of these houses and the expensive services they demand from the city. Fire protection, water and sewage service, bus lines and waste pickup, all are very costly on these steep, narrow streets. They place city workers at risk. But (of course) there’s geology too. Take a look at what’s right across the road from this house.


It’s a fresh landslide scar, exposing crumbly shattered rock. The light-colored stuff is volcanic ash as friable as sand. That curving line to its right is a fault. As I stood there, grit was tumbling down in steady trickles. And when the next moderate earthquake comes on the Oakland fault, no more than a mile to the west, this cliff will collapse. Houses simply should not be allowed up here.