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Speed of Flames Took Victims by Surprise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were a firefighter shielding a woman from a falling power line; a nurse who supervised reviews of patient care; an architectural writer; a police patrol officer. Several were neighbors or belonged to the same family.

The people who died in the devastating fire that ravaged the hills above Oakland and Berkeley apparently fell victim to the brutally, unexpectedly swift speed of the flames.

All of the first victims died on the same brush-surrounded hill in Hiller Highlands, just west of where the fire is believed to have started and by far the hardest-hit area. And all probably died in the initial hours of the raging inferno, authorities said Tuesday.

With at least 54 people unaccounted for, the death toll of 19 was expected to climb. Vast areas of destruction have not been searched yet. In some places, the ground is still too hot to bring in dogs who can sniff for bodies.

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But by examining the circumstances surrounding the deaths of those victims who have been recovered and identified, police investigators and sheriff’s officials are able to draw some conclusions about why so many people died.

Investigators said most of the victims apparently didn’t realize just how rapidly the fire was moving as it swept up from a neighboring canyon and over the hilltop where the affluent Hiller Highlands development sat. And when they did, it was too late.

“It appeared people . . . were totally surprised (by) the ability of the fire to move so quickly,” said Oakland Police Lt. Mike Sims, who is directing the body-recovery effort. “It just blew right through there.”

Several victims were killed as they tried to walk or crawl down the hill and out of the path of the flames. An elderly woman who had survived an earlier fire was found huddled in her home, another woman in her car. The body of one man was found in his home’s hot tub in what police described as a futile attempt to use the water as protection from the flames and heat.

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Another complication: A number of victims trying to flee encountered streets blocked by debris or by vehicles that had exploded and fallen from narrow, winding roads higher up the hillside. That drove some people out of their cars and onto the pavement, where they died.

Whipped by gusty winds and fueled by eucalyptus kindling and drought-parched brush, the fire marched through Hiller Highlands, on the northern edge of Oakland, destroying hundreds of homes and townhouses there. It then headed southeast and jumped California 24, but only after pausing long enough to give warning to thousands of residents of the nearby hills.

“By the time it got across 24, people realized what they were up against and were able to evacuate,” Sims said. “They got much more notice.”

One couple who escaped said they had looked out their window and had seen smoke, but believed it was coming from the other side of the canyon. A short time later, they saw airborne embers headed toward their property. Minutes later, as they ran to their car to leave, flames were starting to lick their home.

A well-respected, veteran firefighter was among the first to die in the Hiller Highlands. Oakland Fire Battalion Chief James Riley, 49, was killed as he tried to shield a woman from a falling power line. The woman, whose name has not yet been released, also died.

“He died exactly the way he wanted to die,” Riley’s wife, Christine, told the Associated Press. “He died fighting fires. It was fast and heroic.”

Nearby, Kimberly Robson, 37, was attempting to drive down the hill from her home on Buckingham Boulevard when she was trapped by the flames. Robson, a nurse at the Alta Bates Medical Group in Berkeley, had worked since last August supervising a patient-care review program.

Across the street from Robson’s home, Gail Baxter, an architectural writer, and her husband, Alfred, were reportedly attempting to flee when he fell into water pouring from a broken water main.

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Gail Baxter died, her body found alongside her car, police said. Alfred Baxter was in fair condition at Alta Bates-Herrick Hospital Tuesday with a dislocated hip and second- and third-degree burns to 20% of his body, a hospital spokeswoman said.

A couple of blocks from where Robson and the Baxters lived, John W. Grubensky, a six-year veteran of the Oakland Police Department, struggled to guide a group of residents down Charing Cross Road. His patrol car blocked by debris, the 32-year-old father of three began crawling down the road.

He and the people he was trying to save perished.

“He was up there knocking on doors, trying to get people out,” said Sgt. Earl Sherman, Grubensky’s boss. “The flames just came over the hill and roaring down.”

Charing Cross Road residents who died included Cheryl Turjanis, 25, the wife of an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy, and her mother-in-law, Ania Turjanis, 64. Their neighbor, Virginia P. Smith, 61, was also killed.

With officials bracing for a higher death toll, Red Cross and police teams were launched Tuesday on a block-by-block search for additional victims caught by the fire. The Red Cross workers are also attempting a count of destroyed homes, apartments and other structures.

Officers have been assigned to specific addresses given by frantic relatives or friends who have reported someone missing.

The teams ascend to each address once the site is thought to be safe. But still-smoldering embers and “hot spots” that make it impossible to thoroughly penetrate some locations have slowed the investigation.

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Because so few areas have been searched, Alameda County officials said they expect to find more bodies.

“There is a good possibility that some (of the missing) are victims,” Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Robert Jarrett said. “This could be a long, drawn-out process.”

Fire Victims

Here is a list of those who have died in the fire and been identified by authorities. Kimberly Robson, 37, Berkeley Virginia Smith, 61, Oakland John. W. Grubensky, 32, Fairfield Cheryl Turjanis, 25, Oakland Aina Turjanis, 64, Oakland James Riley, 49, Martinez Gregor McGuiness, age unknown Gail A. Baxter, 61


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