A windblown wildfire fueled by dry brush whipped through the fashionable Oakland and Berkeley hills Sunday, killing 10 people, destroying more than 200 homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people in one of the worst brush fires in Bay Area history.
Among the fatalities were an Oakland firefighter and an Oakland police officer, Mayor Elihu Harris announced late Sunday night. The destruction included a 250-unit apartment complex that was consumed in a burst of exploding cars and gas lines as occupants fled.
Dozens of people were reported injured, including residents who were burned trying to escape or fight the flames. Five people were admitted to the burn unit at Alta Bates-Herrick Hospital in Berkeley.
Gov. Pete Wilson, who flew to the fire scene by helicopter Sunday night, signed a declaration of emergency on the hood of a car just before taking off from Sacramento.
"It looks to me like one of the worst residential fires I've ever seen," he said to reporters in Oakland after surveying the fire scene.
Frantic ash-covered residents poured out of the hills trying to outrace the blaze, which began as a small brush fire but was churned by dry, gusting 35-m.p.h. winds into an out-of-control firestorm that raised a cloud of smoke over much of the Bay Area.
"You wouldn't believe what it looks like--it's like an inferno," said Bob Moore, who tried to save his home in the hills with a garden hose but gave up when leaping flames engulfed his street. "The fire is spreading in not just short distances--it's spanning entire areas."
Mayor Harris, whose home is in the fire zone, said the fire raged out of control all day Sunday.
"We are doing everything we can to establish parameters but the firefighters are overwhelmed," the mayor said. "It is moving very rapidly. The fire continues to spread and to cause chaos. There is no answer as to how long this will go on. We could be talking about days, certainly we could be talking about 24 hours, under current circumstances."
Oakland emergency operations spokesman Cliff Williams said a preliminary count turned up at least 200 homes destroyed and 1,500 acres consumed by the fire. Both numbers were likely to grow through the night Sunday if the gusting, Santa Ana-style winds did not subside, Williams said.
Beverly Butler, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said the agency opened five shelters in the East Bay and took in about 900 people who have been evacuated from their homes.
The University of California evacuated 18 fraternities and sororities, along with an apartment complex for married students and a dormitory housing 750 students. University spokesman Jesus Mena said classes have been canceled today because of the fire.
Firefighters and residents painted a grim portrait of the scene in the fire's leap along the hills east of central Oakland and Berkeley.
In one sweep, the fire consumed the 250-unit Parkwood apartment complex in Oakland. As the flames raced across the hills into Berkeley, a frantic and chaotic scene unfolded as evacuees tried to escape the hills and others headed toward the blaze to find relatives and friends.
"My parents are up there! I've got to help them, I need to help them!" said one woman as she pleaded with police, who refused to let her pass.
Gloria Hurley, who was crying as she sat in shock at one of the evacuation centers in Oakland, moaned: "I can't find my husband.
"I have never experienced anything in all my life like this," she said, certain that her house in the hills was destroyed.
One of the injured was Joseph Jorgensen, 25, of Berkeley, who rode his motorcycle through flames engulfing his street in the Grizzly Peak area.
"All the houses on the left side of the house were on fire," Jorgensen said. "I hopped on my bike. The wind was so strong that enormous flames were whipping into the street. I put my head down, closed my eyes and went right through it. It was just like in the movies."
Jorgensen, who had been wearing a tank top, said the left side of his face, left arm and and left side of his back caught on fire.
He drove himself to Alta Bates-Herrick Hospital, where he was admitted in good condition with burns on 15% of his body.
Oakland officials said the fire started Saturday morning in brush along California 24 near the Caldecott Tunnel, which connects Oakland with inland Contra Costa County. Firefighters thought the Saturday fire was quickly brought under control after burning just seven acres of brush that was left tinder dry by five years of drought and a long summer.
But on Sunday morning the fire, driven by the unseasonably dry and warm winds and 80-degree temperatures, flared anew.
Bill Nichols, a firefighter with the East Bay Regional Park District who was on the hillside just as the fire was starting, said it ignited with explosive force.
"The wind hit the embers from yesterday's fire and it just literally blew up," Nichols said. "The winds were so powerful that when they hit, the hill just exploded. At that point, everyone just started running for their lives."
On the way down the hill, Nichols and the crew of firefighters with him picked up the bodies of two people who had died of smoke inhalation by the side of the road.
"I haven't seen anything like this since Vietnam," Nichols said. "It was literally like an artillery barrage. The ground was shaking, things were blowing up, transmission lines were coming down. It was so bad, you wanted to stay where you were and hug the ground, but you had to keep moving."
By midday, the fire had moved down the Oakland Hills into the woody, upscale neighborhoods that dot the lower slopes.
California 24 was closed, snarling traffic in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The power went out to 8,300 homes.
"This thing is huge. It's a monster," said one firefighter, surveying the scene.
Just after noon, Oakland's landmark Claremont Hotel, about a mile from the University of California campus, was evacuated. About 100 guests were forced to flee in the daytime darkness created by the thick, billowing smoke.
Nearly 600 firefighters from departments as far away as Sacramento were summoned to fight the fire, along with a squadron of aerial tankers that fought the flames from the air until nightfall.
Capt. Gene Dettrick of the Dougherty Regional Fire Department arrived with a crew of 12 firefighters and five trucks and tried to make a stand near Lake Temescal, just beyond the Caldecott Tunnel.
They were initially hampered by the difference in the sizes of fire hydrant hookups used in Oakland, which prevented the suburban Alameda County firefighters from drawing water. Even after solving that problem, they were pushed back by the fast-moving blaze.
"Impossible," Dettrick said, assessing the situation in the afternoon. "If you want to see California insanity, look at all the shingle roofs. We've warned people."
Ash and embers were whipped by the wind and carried across the bay and over San Francisco. Sunday had dawned as a sunny, warm fall day in the Bay Area but the smoke soon cast a strange orange glow over the sky.
Soot blown through windows dirtied furniture in homes 15 miles away in the southwest corner of San Francisco, and fans at the San Francisco 49ers football game at Candlestick Park were rained on by ash and embers.
Tim Moulton, a local hospital administrator, was at the 49ers game when he decided to rush to help fight the fire that was approaching his parents' home. "I haven't gotten tickets to the 49ers in seven years," he said.
He left for Oakland at the end of the first quarter. "I thought my folks' house was going to go up--that pretty much overshadowed everything," Moulton said as he watered down their home. "It's amazing how friendly people are being. Kids are helping people move . . . . Unfortunately, it looks like there won't be much of a neighborhood left."
Even as he watered the house, police officers passing through the area were announcing on a megaphone: "Get out, get out, everyone out now."
The muted sound of explosions from gas lines, burning vehicles and overheated electrical transformers could be heard throughout the hills as the fire spread.
Several residents complained that calls to the fire department for help went unheeded and they were left to fight the fire on their as best they could.
Katherine Baskin, a student at Cal State Hayward who was riding her bike in the area, stopped to help residents battle the fire. She used a garden hose to water down roofs and back yards until the fire forced her to retreat.
"We watched the whole block go," she said. "There was nothing we could do. One house after another. You just watched it go."
"I went through the earthquake and this is worse," she said, refering to the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck the Bay Area almost two years ago. "To Oakland, this is more devastating."
Steve Burback, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., which provides weather data for The Times, said the temperature in the Bay Area is expected to drop today by 10 degrees with a slight chance of rain Tuesday.
Burback added that the winds are expected to shift direction today toward the east, blowing the fire away from the city.
The fire occurred in roughly the same area that burned 21 years ago in a fire that destroyed about 20 homes and caused more than $2 million in property damage.
Groves reported from Oakland, Dunn from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Hugo Martin, Philip Hager, Richard C. Paddock and Tracy Wilkinson also contributed to this story.