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Alvarado Road Operations
continued from Part 1

At 5 p.m., Chief Postel placed Division 2 Assistant Chief Musante and his aide on standby for dispatch to the Claremont Hotel, along with relief firefighters.

The air temperature recorded at the Oakland Museum was 87 degrees F at 5 p.m. – a record – with wind speeds at the Mount Diablo reporting station in excess of 40 mph, according to Norman Hui, public service forecaster for the National Weather Service.

About 5 p.m., hose bundles were hand-carried along Alvarado Rd. to a hydrant at Gravatt Dr. by firefighters and citizen-volunteers, but it too was dry. Apparatus could not be brought this far along Alvarado Rd. because of downed power lines, poles and trees as well as excessive fire, heat, wind and firebrands.

Chief officers O'Sullivan of Hayward and Tabacco met with Assistant Chief Hickey. They felt that a secure water supply was absolutely necessary to hold the firefront which was then roughly 2,000 airline-feet from the Claremont Hotel – so they decided that the five-inch supply line should be extended to the upper elevation of Alvarado Rd., more than one- half-mile uphill from the hotel at grades sometimes in excess of 45 percent.

"I got up at the top of Alvarado Rd.," said Assistant Chief Hickey, and there was a building fully involved. I said to myself, `If this were in the City, I would pull a second or third [alarm].' Then I looked down the street and there were 7 or 8 other buildings in the same condition."

"We had lines there," he said, "but the fire jumped the street and got into the trees and we knocked that down. Then I saw that was a fire up to the north of us that was heading for the eucalyptus grove behind the Claremont Hotel."

An air tanker and two water-bearing helicopters were dropping strikes about one-half mile or so north of the officers.

Assistant Chief Hickey contacted Battalion Chief Roybal at the Claremont command post on the Department radio to order air strikes at their location to slow the firefront while the five-inch hose lead was extended. The chief officers felt that CDF helicopter water and air tanker chemical retardant strikes would give them sufficient time to get the hose laid, and to establish a new fire line.

Gary L. Cates, Chief of Department of Berkeley, arrived at the hotel and conferred with Oakland Capt. Parker and Assistant Chief Hickey about felling the two large eucalyptus groves which stood between the hotel and the head of the conflagration.

This would have been a last-ditch move because falling trees would destroy power lines that supplied electricity to the Claremont Hotel. Loss of electricity would have meant loss of the pumps which supplied water to wet foliage around the building. The trees were not felled.

Fifteen minutes after the call for CDF air support, one air tanker chemical retardant and two helicopter water strikes hit the firefront near Alvarado Rd. and Gravatt Dr. The single chemical strike hit directly at Assistant Chief Hickey's location. These tanker and helicopter strikes slowed the advancing firefront long enough to allow crews to finish the hoselay and allow for the positioning of companies along the fire line.

Homes and structures along both sides of Alvarado Rd. between Claremont Ave. and Siler Pl. were fully involved in fire, and other homes and structures along the northeast side of the street between Siler Pl. and Gravatt Dr. were also consumed.

Lieutenant Scullion and his crew from San Francisco Engine 6 – operating on foot – found fire wildly skipping from house to house in the area and made three-inch leads to knock down this fire. The crew led three-inch lines between surviving structures and put out the fire in one home. The crew also assisted in laying the five-inch line along Eucalyptus Path.

"It was getting dark from the smoke," said Chief's Aide Bryant, "and we were advancing lines up the hillsides to try to keep the fire from coming down to the roadway. It was steep and got pretty muddy because of all the water we were pumping, and that made the hill hard to climb.

"At about this time I got the portable Department radio wet and it went dead. The fire was high in the trees, and houses away from us were fully involved. I saw a few trees just explode; it gets your attention when they go, and you know its not a dream – this is for real. I didn't hear them make a noise when they went, I just saw them blow up and I watched in amazement," said Chief's Aide Bryant.

The conflagration swept across Alvarado Rd. from the northeast to the southwest, and it was decided by the chief officers to take a stand here and attack the firefront. This strategy was developed to keep the fire from swinging across, then running down the southwest side of the hill along Alvarado Rd. from Siler Pl. to the Claremont Hotel and on to the city of Berkeley.

Battalion Chief Cercos had been assigned to relieve Battalion Chief Tabacco at 8 p.m. "There was enough fire for everyone," Battalion Chief Cercos said, and Battalion Chief Tabacco remained on the fire line until midnight.

As companies fought the conflagration uphill, the five-inch lead was extended by Hayward Engine 2 from Pleasanton Engine 61.

Lieutenant Lee of Engine 7 – operating on foot – said, "We took a lead from the fire back down to the supply provided the Pleasanton engine," and then began to move on the firefront. This lead of three-inch hose, according to Capt. Richard Brown of Castro Valley Engine 5, was in excess of 1,000 feet. The length of this combined five- and-three-inch hoselay then was in excess of 3,500 feet at 30-to-45 percent grade.

On the orders of Hayward Battalion Chief O' Sullivan, Berkeley Lt. Richard J. Schmidt and a lieutenant from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory fire department began to move the Berkeley relief engine up Alvarado Rd. "The streets were congested with electric wires, fire equipment, firemen and telephone poles; we knew that we would have to run out if we couldn't stop it," Lt. Schmidt wrote.

The Berkeley relief apparatus was staged at 845 Alvarado Rd. where a portable hydrant from the Hayward apparatus was dropped.

The relay engines in order were: Fremont Engine 1053 at the hydrant at the foot of Eucalyptus Path, Union City Engine 1, Pleasanton Engine 61, Hayward Engine 2 and Berkeley Relief Engine 14.

"They did a great job – very professional – they knew their stuff," Battalion Chief Cercos said of the Berkeley firefighters. "They brought a five-inch supply line and we used their apparatus as a manifold, and they saved two homes on Amito while we advanced on the firefront."

At 9:18 p.m., Battalion Chief Tabacco reported by Department radio that the conflagration jumped Alvarado Rd. near the intersection of a narrow lane identified only as "20-foot Dr." on maps of the area.

Rising and erratic fire-driven winds in excess of 65 mph preheated structures and foliage, and temperatures approached 2,000 degrees F. Large homes and large trees exploded in flame, and they would then generate firebrands which were picked up by the fierce, hot winds – which in turn ignited other structures and trees – and soon they too would explode.

In some places aluminum engine blocks and parts of burning automobiles melted and ran into the gutter. Battalion Chief Cercos said, "The trees would simply explode. I'd never seen anything like that before." Some officers reported seeing fire devils and devilkins in the area.

Pleasanton Capt. Molkenburhr saw an automobile explode from radiant heat while working in the Alvarado Rd. area.

Battalion Chief Cercos ordered 30 firefighters, in full protective clothing, brought up from the San Francisco command post to the firefront to relieve firefighters and citizen-volunteers who had been on the lines for almost eight hours.

Sometime around 10 p.m., three three-inch leads were led from the Hayward street manifold and extended farther up the hill to about 901 Alvarado Rd. near Robinson Dr.

"Initially," said Battalion Chief Cercos, "there were heavy fire conditions with two homes involved in the 900 block – it was above Gravatt Dr. – and there we met personnel from Fremont, Hayward and Novato."

Battalion Chief Cercos also said at times the conflagration's firefront almost overran firefighters along Alvarado Rd. Four two-and-one-half- inch hand lines and three one-and-one-half-inch lines with straight tips were also extended from the Berkeley engine to stop the fire in the 700 and 800 blocks of Alvarado Rd.

The battalion chief officers began to establish a fire defense perimeter along Alvarado Rd. They deployed personnel from the various departments and citizen-volunteers, and prepared to cut a fuelbreak.

Three-inch lines from the portable hydrant were swung around and attached to two Gorter pipes that Battalion Chief Tabacco special-called from the San Francisco command post. Master streams from these pipes helped knock down the fire in the 900 block. Four two- and three one- and-one-half-inch lines were also extended from the Berkeley relief engine.

Battalion Chief Cercos ordered chain saws carried from the Claremont command post up the hill in readiness to fell large trees and utility poles so hose lines could be extended down the canyon wall, to protect the remaining structures in the 900 block of Alvarado Rd.

The fire attempted to sweep up from the canyon floor. Firefighters from San Francisco, Hayward, Union City, San Leandro, Pleasanton, Fremont, Castro Valley, Novato, Berkeley, CDF and citizen-volunteers – about 100 in all – took a stand and fought the conflagration in these extreme conditions in a successful suppression effort which lasted more than two hours.

The large line attack held, and the upward sweep of the conflagration was stopped before it could destroy those homes and those left on both sides of the 600 block, as well as the remaining structures in the 700 and 800 blocks of Alvarado Rd.

At 10 p.m., command of Division C was transferred by Oakland Capt. Parker to Assistant Chief Hickey. The Oakland captain then returned to the main Oakland command post at Tunnel Rd. and state Highway 24 to assist with overall operations.

By 11 p.m. chief officers Musante, Hickey, Cercos and Tabacco felt that the firefront had been stopped and that the Claremont Hotel and the city of Berkeley were no longer in imminent danger.

As fire conditions in Oakland improved, Chief Postel began to demobilize San Francisco operations at 11:45 p.m., and most of it's functions passed to Assistant Chief Shaughnessy, the senior chief officer on duty in San Francisco.

Battalion Chief Cercos relieved Battalion Chief Tabacco at midnight.

Mutual aid crews worked in the area for the next two hours, putting out hot spots and flying brands that were burning in pine trees. "The two houses on Amito were checked at least three other times by me," wrote Berkeley Lt. Schmidt, "and at least twice by San Francisco firemen. That fire was completely out by 0200 hours."

At about 2:30 a.m., winds again picked up and firefighters saw the firefront sweeping back up the hill at them from Claremont Ave. "The San Francisco fire chief [Battalion Chief Cercos] stated he wanted four three- inch lines set up to protect the remaining houses on Alvarado," wrote Berkeley Lt. Schmidt. A fifth line was wyed to provide two hand lines for structure protection.

"The first three-inch line was set up in the carport of 845 Alvarado Rd., he wrote, "and the third and fourth lines were tied to two eucalyptus [trees] ... 50 to 70 feet up from 845 Alvarado; we stayed there for about 4 hours. Meanwhile CDF, San Francisco, Hayward and Marin fought the fire downhill. CDF eventually backfired into the fire and stopped it."

The Alvarado Rd. flank was the first of the conflagration to be contained.

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