The fire was first reported just after noon on Oct. 19, 1991, a clear Saturday in the Oakland Hills where five years of drought had left the grassy slopes bone dry.
The brush fire began above a home on Buckingham Boulevard, and a rapid response by firefighters stopped the blaze’s spread at 2 acres in within about 90 minutes.
Firefighters worked the scene for hours, well into the darkness, and continued to return through the night just to be certain it was out.
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The next day, fed by fierce winds, the blaze exploded into a wall of fire that killed 25 people, destroyed more than 3,000 structures and 2,000 vehicles and ranks as one of the deadliest fires in California history.
The Oakland Hills fire, considered one of the worst in the nation’s history, roared out of control for three days until the winds relented and allowed firefighters to stop its advance.
“The fire completely overwhelmed the firefighting forces of the area, consuming everything in its path, and was only stopped when the Diablo wind conditions abated,” investigator J. Gordon Routley wrote in a 130-page report for FEMA’s U.S. Fire Administration. “The wind threatened to drive the fire across the entire city of Oakland.”
The fire destroyed entire neighborhoods and moved so quickly that residents were trapped on the narrow winding roads as they tried to drive out of the inferno.
At one point on Charing Cross Road, off-duty Oakland police Officer John Grubensky tried to lead homeowners to safety but was killed with a number of residents when the flames swept over them and their vehicles.
Losses from the fire have been estimated at nearly $4 billion, and although investigators painstakingly investigated the scene of the original blaze – even administering lie detector tests to some workmen from the area – the original cause of the blaze was never determined.