Stanford University
Water Vulnerability in the Oakland Hills: Oakland Firestorm, 1991
Water Vulnerability in the Oakland Hills: Oakland Firestorm, 1991

Authors: Allie Hausladen, Kathy Harris, and Gregory Simon

On October 20th, 1991, a fire known as the Oakland "Tunnel" Firestorm raged through the Oakland hills in the East Bay Area of California scorching upwards of 3,000 homes and claiming 25 lives. The fire, one of the most expensive in dollar fire loss in United States history, quickly overwhelmed firefighting resources taking out power lines and subsequently draining local reservoirs necessary for making water available to burning and vulnerable homes.

The water system in the hills is designed as a layered network of pressure systems where water from lower elevations is pumped up to reservoirs located in the hills. The water is then delivered from these reservoirs by gravity to hydrants and individual water lines. On the day of the fire, power losses from falling power lines caused the Amito Pump, located at the base of the burning hills, to lose power at 11:35am. As a result, the pressure zones located above this pumping station were left only with water already stored in reservoirs to fight the quickly spreading fire until emergency pumps and generators were brought in at 6pm.

This visualization shows both a birds-eye and cross-section view of the Amito Water System and follows a detailed timeline that begins with the initial spread of the fire at 10:45am and the subsequent loss of power to the Amito Pump at 11:35am. After the pumping plant loses power, you will be able to see the water resources drain from the Amito, Sherwick, Strathmore, Gwin, and Berkeley Hills Reservoirs. When each reservoir drains, the streets and homes that it supplies with water begin to run dry leaving them without defense to the fire.

For further discussion about the vulnerability of the Amito Water System, make sure to read the discussion section at the end of the animation. For more details on the historical resource development of the Oakland area, refer to the other Vulnerability in Production visualizations.

Vulnerability in Production: A case study of the Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland, California
Spatial History