10/21/2011 01:05 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2011

1991 Oakland Fire: 'You Want To Save A House? Go Ahead!'

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Lance Williams

On Oct. 20, 1991, a firestorm in the Oakland hills killed 25 people and burned 3,500 homes, including some of the most expensive and beautiful structures in the Bay Area. As the 20-year anniversary of one of the state's worst disasters approaches, California Watch reporter Lance Williams, then with the San Francisco Examiner, describes what it was like inside the fire lines:

By midmorning Sunday, the fire obviously was out of control, and the city desk was sending every reporter it could find to Oakland.

I went to the pricey hillside neighborhoods between the Claremont Country Club and Lake Temescal, where dozens of homes were ablaze.

The firestorm had swept west from the lake into Upper Broadway Terrace, but there were only a couple of fire trucks and perhaps a dozen Oakland firefighters on the scene.

And so much of the firefighting was done by volunteers – residents who had ignored the police evacuation order in hopes of saving their homes, teenage boys who had abandoned pickup basketball games at the Chabot Elementary School when the fire broke out.

The scene was unbelievably chaotic. I remember the choking clouds of smoke, dark as twilight; the bursts of flame, red-orange and intense, as the eucalyptus trees caught fire; the sudden crashing sounds as houses exploded and the plate glass broke; and the ugly hissing sound of gas mains burning inside houses that were already on fire.

Some of the volunteers were bold.

On Buena Vista Place, I met Jeff Henshaw, a carpenter with an ax and a fire hose. As I watched, he climbed into a burning home through a smashed picture window and began chopping a hole in the hardwood floor of the living room. Flames shot through the hole; he blasted them with a jet of water.

“I just think the fire department is overwhelmed,” he told me. “Ever since I got up here, they look at you and it’s like, ‘You want to save a house? Go ahead.’ ”

Quickly, a system evolved. The Oakland firefighters also served as fire captains. They directed the volunteers to haul hoses, wield axes and shovels, and even work the hoses themselves.

Derek Yegian, a teenager, was one of the volunteer hosemen.

“You open up and lean way into the hose and fire at the base of the flame,” he said.

“Fun? Not fun, but exhilarating.

“Everyone wants to be a hero once.”

At about 3 p.m., I walked south, over the ridge to the upper end of Ocean View Drive, an area of some particularly lovely old homes.

I passed what I used to call my “win-the-lottery house” – a gorgeous Spanish-style mansion with sweeping bay views, worth millions. The roof and upstairs were aflame. There wasn’t a firefighter in sight.

Fire was just reaching that area. The high winds were blowing embers, and a few shake roofs were smoldering. Down on Margarido Drive, amongst a cluster of homes untouched by fire, I could see one roof burning.

I clambered over a back fence and made my way to the house. I grabbed a garden hose and began trying to climb up onto the structure, hoping I could attack the burning roof. An Oakland motorcycle policeman pulled up and began shouting.

“You! You! Get down from there!” he yelled.

As the house continued to burn, he threatened to arrest me for looting.

A fire truck pulled up. Out jumped a fire department photographer, two volunteers and one Oakland firefighter. They went to work on the fire.

Yards away, a big two-story house was starting to burn. I helped some of the young basketball players drag a hose inside – the front door was unlocked. We dragged the hose up the front stairs into a child’s upstairs bedroom. We stuck the hose out the window to get at the roof, but there was no water pressure. Firemen finally arrived.

By then, the houses up and down the street were aflame.

I saw a man in a vintage Studebaker pull out of a driveway and speed away from his burning house.

A woman asked me to help her find her lost pets. We went around the side of her house, into the backyard, and found the whole rear of the structure was on fire.

Nearby, a homeowner was protecting his house with hose and shovel, attacking every spark that flew onto the property. His house was still OK, but the house next door already was ruined.

“It went up like an oil refinery,” the man said.

He let me use his phone. I called the city desk and dictated some information. Then I checked in with my wife. I was shocked to learn that the fire had swept into Berkeley and was coming down Alvarado Road by the Claremont Hotel. Police were evacuating streets around the hotel. I went home after that and filed my story from there.

That night, we watched the hills burn. One beautiful white mansion on the ridge was ringed by burning houses, but seemed invulnerable. For a long time, we thought it might survive. But finally, it, too, was consumed.

Lance Williams is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.