Chief Debra Pryor: “There were a lot of lessons learned”
Chief Debra Pryor: “There were a lot of lessons learned”

In October 1991, Debra Pryor was a newly promoted Lieutenant in the Berkeley Fire Department. She spent the morning of October 20 in the South Bay with her mother, but when she returned to Berkeley, she picked up an assignment to relieve a fire crew in Roble Road that had been struggling with the firestorm.

“There was still a lot of chaos,” she recalls. “There was an awful lot of fire. There was an awful lot of damage. Lives had been lost. It was unsettling.

“My grandmother used to clean a house on Roble Court. That house wasn’t damaged. But coming on a street that the day before had been ordinary — you could see the chimneys. It looked like tombstones where the houses had been.”

Pryor’s role on the day was a small part of a massive response to the Firestorm: 440 engine companies, 1,500 firefighters and 250 agencies were involved in the response. Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people were evacuated on the day, about 150 injuries were reported, and 25 people lost their lives, including Oakland Battalion Chief James Riley and Oakland Police Officer John Grubensky. Damage estimates exceeded $1.5 billion: 3,354 single-family homes and 456 apartment units were destroyed.

Now, as chief of the Berkeley Fire Department, Pryor is acutely conscious of the challenges of responding to such a large emergency, one that developed at stunning speed.

“In the chaos of the moment, it’s very difficult to make the right decisions,” Pryor said. That applies to residents, who quickly needed to evacuate their houses, and for some of whom a wrong turn in the escape meant disaster. But it also applies, she said, to the emergency services.

One of the key lessons from the tragedies of 20 years ago was the need to have more effective cooperation and communication between different jurisdictions. As Pryor points out, the Berkeley hills border Oakland, Contra Costa County and the East Bay Regional Park District. Twenty years ago there were communication failures between the different jurisdictions and insufficient coordination.

That has changed.

“A problem in any of the areas can have impact on our city,” Pryor said. “We now have mutual response agreements: we know who’s going to respond, we have agreed staging areas, and we have a unified command structure. The multiple jurisdictions have annual training programs together.”

Berkeley firefighters also have better training and equipment for wildfires, according to Pryor. Through Alameda County, Berkeley firefighters are called upon to help with wildfires elsewhere in the state on a rotating basis with other Alameda County departments. In terms of equipment, the firefighters have special wildfire personal protective equipment, which is lighter weight than the standard equipment. The department also recently took delivery of a new “pump and roll” engine, which can pump while moving.

Technology also helps, Pryor said. The reverse 911 — the Berkeley Emergency Notification System — is an important tool, she said. Emergency radio broadcasts also help with notification, but they depend on people listening to their radios at the time.

Changes in the building code, particularly for roofing and siding, have also reduced the fire danger, Pryor said. The city has encouraged better vegetation management, she said.

Pryor also cites the heightened awareness by Berkeleyans of the potential dangers of wildfires. “People are more engaged in their own fire safety,” she said. She points to three significant tax measures passed in recent years in Berkeley to help fund the fire department.

“It’s important for people not to forget,” Pryor said. “Preparation is constant and it’s constantly evolving.” She said that having emergency preparedness kits that are accessible and ready is fundamental. Pryor also said that preparedness is about more than food, water and flashlights. “If you can have something of your own, something personal, that’s a little more comforting,” she said.

This article is part of our “Firestorm Special” series which is appearing on Berkeleyside in the run-up to October 20, 2011, the 20th anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. Read previous Firestorm Special stories.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...