Living in a Danger Zone

By Patricia Yollin

The 1991 East Bay hills fire killed 25 people and destroyed 3,000 homes.

The green hills around Saint Mary's will soon turn brown. Wildfire season is coming. It is a constant for anyone living in California, as certain and inevitable as summer giving way to fall.

"We've always had fire, since the beginning of time," says Louis Vella, who retired in 2008 as administrative chief and fire marshal of the Redwood City Fire Department. "And in this state, whether the fires are fanned by the Santa Anas of Southern California or the winds swirling around Mount Diablo, they will happen. Nature takes care of itself. The problems occur when you have property and lives involved."

Vella was talking about the urban-wildland interface, which he knows well. He was involved with 600 to 700 fires in 24 years, coordinating resources, assisting with traffic control and evacuations, monitoring the progress of blazes, documenting scenes and determining causes.

He thinks about the risks posed by that interface every time he visits Saint Mary's College, where he received a bachelor's degree in management in 1989.

"Moraga and the area around the College are susceptible to devastating fires," says Vella, 57, of Belmont. "In the summer, when it's scorching hot and you see the heat lift from the ground, you go, ‘Oh my God, I hope the fog comes in quickly.' "

Over the decades, the Saint Mary's community has been profoundly affected by fire. For faculty, staff, students and alumni, the connections run deep.

Although wildfire devastates landscapes, it also transforms them. It often does the same thing to the human psyche. People learn lessons. They look at the world differently. They realign their priorities. Some become more anxious, but also more equipped to deal with the unexpected. Others turn outward, embracing volunteerism.

Joelle Rowley and her cherished shelter blanket.

Joelle Rowley, a sophomore at Saint Mary's, is only 19, but has already been through four fire threats. During the first, an October 2003 blaze that came within two blocks of her house in the Scripps Ranch section of San Diego, she and her family were evacuated for a week. During the second, when she was living in La Jolla four years later, she fed and watered rescued horses at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

"Watching the community come together was one of my favorite things about the first fire," Rowley says. "I remember playing chess with a 21-year-old and beating him. And I had a dirty gray blanket on my back. I pretended to be a hobbit."

She still has that blanket, and the clothes she wore at the evacuation center. She also has two emergency kits she keeps next to her bed. She remains wary of potential dangers.

"I won't go on BART unless I have a buddy. And I won't go anywhere alone off-campus, knowing what can happen," says Rowley, whose birthday is Sept. 11. "A lot of bad things happen to me."

Rowley's experience with fire made her more prepared. Other Saint Mary's community members discovered what was most important in their lives. Cheryl Kelly is among several who lost their houses 19 years ago in the East Bay hills conflagration that destroyed thousands of homes and killed 25 people.

"I learned that stuff does not define people," says Kelly, administrative assistant to interim School of Science Dean Roy Wensley. "I don't identify so much with personal items the way I did at one time. I guess it's self-preservation. I don't want to lose any more of myself if I can possibly help it."

On Oct. 20, 1991, Kelly and her husband flew into San Francisco around 7 p.m. after a weekend in Virginia. They raced to Oakland after hearing about the huge wildfire. Near the Claremont Hotel, they found a van manned by a firefighter and gave him their address. He turned page after page in his binder without finding it listed.

"I told him it was in the Hiller Highlands," Kelly recalls. "He says, ‘I'm sorry. It was one of the first places to go.' I remember screaming, ‘That can't be, that can't be. That's my life.' I'll never forget that feeling."

The next day they hiked to where their home had been.

"There was nothing left," Kelly says. "It was like a bald hill."

Kelly's car was a silver puddle of melted metal. But a cement squirrel that had been a garden ornament survived.

"We called him Smoky, and he's still with us," she says. Her father, meanwhile, collected a dozen yellow tiles from her fireplace, strewn through the rubble, and made them into a tray that she treasures. Other treasures were forever gone — her husband's military memorabilia, a Tiffany ring and a malachite necklace her aunt had given her, and, worst of all, their two Himalayan cats.

The bad memories, however, are balanced by good ones, including help from the Red Cross, a "kitchen shower" thrown by her husband's company, and a stranger's offer of hospitality.

"When you are hurting and you are a victim, the kindness of people is so touching," says Kelly, 63, who now lives in Walnut Creek.

Much like Kelly, professor Barry Eckhouse, director of technology and online learning and the hybrid executive MBA program, became a minimalist after his Oakland home went up in flames in the 1991 fire.

"If something happened now, I'd be the last person to grab stuff," says the 60-year-old Moraga resident. "It really doesn't matter. It's OK if the high school yearbook is gone."

His split-level house, which was in the last stage of remodeling, was near the blaze's point of origin. He knew that there had been a fire the day before and had seen smoke hours earlier, but he was unconcerned — until two neighbors banged on his door, screaming.

"The back of my house was on fire, and the trees on the right-hand side of the house were on fire," Eckhouse says. "Things had really accelerated in a short time."

He snatched up his wallet, car keys and his cat Moneypenny. As he drove away, he saw a neighbor across the street trying to hose down her roof.

"Her husband yelled, ‘It's not that kind of fire.' I remember that distinctly," Eckhouse says. "The fire moved so fast. It was jumping like a squirrel. I thought, ‘How do you corral or control this?' And the answer is, ‘You don't.' "

Driving down the hill through blinding smoke and flaming tumbleweeds, Eckhouse wondered whether he should let Moneypenny out of the car.

"I didn't think we'd make it through," he says. "It didn't look good. And they can get in places we can't."

They stuck together. But Eckhouse never again saw his two other cats, Captain Wow and Skippy, who were outside when he fled the fire. For months, he visited shelters daily, set up feeders and called veterinarians' office. At night, up in the hills, he could see eyes shining in the dark because so many felines had retreated there.

Eckhouse lost his fountain pen collection, valuable Japanese art and several hundred pages of a book he was writing that later became Competitive Communication. But he only really regretted losing the cats.

"I don't drive Fish Ranch Road without thinking I might see them," he says.

After the fire, Eckhouse moved to a gated community with a golf course in San Ramon, even though he had no interest in gated communities and hated golf. He now suspects he was looking for stability.

He got together a couple of times with others on campus who had been through the fire.

"I was envious of how much time they had," he says. "They talked about gathering their things together, putting them in cars. That's what I remember — how incredibly quickly things happened."

He remains changed by the experience, even as he feels fortunate to be alive. Now, he doesn't think of ownership in the way he once did — for years he had almost no furniture. And he has far less faith in emergency services, airline maintenance, FEMA and other things he took for granted before the 1991 firestorm.

"What it impresses on you is the reality of catastrophic events," Eckhouse says. "A lot of folks go through the day the way I used to go through the day: ‘If things happen, they happen in Haiti.' I don't think I assume the worst, but I'm mindful of it in a way I wasn't before."

More people need that sense of vulnerability, says Frans Hoffman, who works in the College's computer and technology services and is coordinator of the Lamorinda Disaster Animal Response Team, which deploys to wildfires and other disasters to rescue and shelter animals.

A few years ago, the 60-year-old Moraga resident says, an emergency drill took place based on the scenario that a wildfire had started in the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness and swept down to the Saint Mary's campus and Moraga, with one main road in and out. He thought of that drill when he volunteered in 2008 at a wildfire in Butte County and saw the ravaged town of Paradise.

"The road there is very similar to here," he says. "And the canopy had caught fire. That was such an eye opener. I was vaguely aware we had a wildfire issue, but then I recognized it could be in our own backyard."

Hoffman teaches a Community Emergency Response Team class at Saint Mary's. After his stint in Butte County, he helped change the curriculum to alert people to what fire can do. And he is more mindful of the potential for disaster; he keeps important documents in a fire-proof safe and key information on his thumb drive.

"If any place is the urban-wildland interface, this is it," he says, glancing at the hills around campus as he headed to the class. "And it's not an enviable position to be in."

Fairfield Fire Chief Vince Webster, 47, a 1999 graduate with a bachelor's in management, couldn't agree more.

"We as humans are complacent," he says.

In 27 years as a firefighter, he has fought hundreds of blazes, including the 1991 East Bay hills fire.

"If you drove through the hills today, you'd see the same problems," says Webster, ticking off a list that included narrow roads, overgrown vegetation, poorly maintained homes, clogged rain gutters and firewood stacked against structures.

"The prevention part of our job is truly challenging. You have to get folks motivated. And in the United States, we have the ‘it can't happen to me' mentality."

In the past several decades, he says, humans have put themselves in danger by choosing to move into wildland-urban interface areas.

"My concern is that we're increasing the risk considerably, while not doing enough to handle that risk and face it head on," Webster says.

Former firefighter Joseph Thurin, a 1989 management graduate, says, "We used to just call them wildfires, and all of a sudden, there are people out there."

When he retired in 2007, after 27 years, he was senior line captain with the Benicia Fire Department.

"When you're a young firefighter, you want to go to a fire every day," says Thurin, 55. "But then you get older and you start to witness what it does to people."

Ian McQueary is 24, but he has witnessed plenty. A Nevada-based seasonal firefighter, he started battling blazes when he got out of high school. He spent three years on an engine and three more on a helicopter crew. He has fought about 150 fires, including last year's Station Fire in Los Angeles, where he encountered several urban-wildland interfaces.

"They present a whole new set of hazards," says McQueary, who graduated from Saint Mary's in 2008 with a degree in mathematics. "There are lots of things you don't run into when you're in the middle of the country. You're dealing with the accessibility of roads. What's your escape route, will it be changing? Is it going to be crowded if everyone tries to leave at one time? You have someone's house, and an enormous part of their lives personally and financially is wrapped up in that house."

McQueary loves to fight fires, but he might not make it a career.

"It's something I thought I'd never walk away from," he says. "But I'd like to have more day-to-day stability and a set schedule. I might use my degree and teach. Or be an actuary for an insurance company."