April 2014 fire in the canyon, by Joe Engbeck

The alarm sounded at 11:21 am. A fire of unknown size and origin was burning in Claremont Canyon. The cell- phone caller who was first to alert the Oakland Fire Department, reported a lot of smoke in the upper canyon not far from the intersection of Claremont Avenue, Grizzly Peak Boulevard and Fish Ranch Road. It was Tuesday, January 21, 2014—well into the driest winter ever recorded in the East Bay.

Fire fighters and engines from at least four Oakland fire stations plus Oakland Police officers, CalFire personnel, and East Bay Regional Park District fire fighters dropped everything and headed for the fire. The first engines arrived on site at 11:28, six and a half minutes after the alarm was first sounded. 

Ironically, they had trouble locating the fire at first. The smoke was misleading. It had drifted up-canyon and away from the original ignition. One battalion chief took his company up to Four Corners and then hiked down the Summit House Trail to the fire. Another company drove down to signpost 29 and then hiked up Summit House
Trail to the fire. The first fire fighters to reach the fire didn’t use any part of the trail system. They stayed on the paved road, Claremont Avenue, until they spotted the fire and then plunged straight down the embankment and broke through the brush to reach the fire. 

What they found was a ground fire burning slowly through low-growing grass and shrubs beneath a forest canopy made up of young redwoods, oaks, and bay trees. They used hand tools, including Pulaskis, the traditional tool of the wildland firefighter, to clear a trail through the brush between the fire and the paved road where a tanker truck loaded with water was waiting for them. Finally, they laid out a 1.5-inch hose and started dousing the flames with water.

Thirty minutes after fire fighters first arrived and started working, the fire was out and a fire line was in place all around the scorched fire area. It was five min- utes before high noon. Mysteries remain. Who started the fire and why? And exactly where did the fire start? How did a small grass fire manage to scorch nearby trees as much as 40 feet above the ground? 

These and other questions remain unanswered, but one thing we can be sure of: the damage would have been far more extensive if the fire had occurred under similar conditions ten years ago when a dense stand of eucalyptus trees dominated the area.