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Search Resumes, Fire May Have Sprung From Illegal Brush Clearing

October 25, 1991

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) _ With rain looming ominously in the weekend forecast, investigators continued searching for victims and clues Thursday in the aftermath of the devastating fire that swept over the Oakland hills.

One or two people remained missing, according to authorities who believe the fire - one of the worst in the nation’s history - may have been started by construction workers illegally burning brush.

The blaze began Saturday, was snuffed out but flared up the next day. Before it was brought under control Wednesday, it killed 24 people, injured 148 and destroyed 3,000 houses and apartments, fire officials said. It caused an estimated $5 billion damage.

Of the 24 people killed, coroner’s officials have released the identities of 10, including two people identified Thursday. They were Martha Gabriela Reed, 18, of Orinda and Louis Douglas McNeary, 44, of Oakland.

Rain was forecast for Friday and Saturday, and officials worried that the fire might be followed by disastrous mudslides on the vegetation-stripped hills. Workers planned to begin building wood and mesh barriers to catch soil and rocks and protect homes still standing below.

As soon as authorities finish looking for the remains of the victims - a task expected to take a few more days - fabric is to be placed over hillsides to hold soil in place.

The number of missing was reduced sharply after authorities released a list of people who were unaccounted for. ″That really helped because most of them called in,″ police Sgt. Greg Bingham said.

Arson investigators Thursday swarmed over the site of Saturday’s blaze. Fire Chief P. Lamont Ewell has said that the fire is ″suspicious because we’ve ruled out all natural causes.″

Three people who lived in the hillside neighborhood where the fire began were quoted as saying the fire may have been started by construction workers burning debris.

FBI agent David Williams, one of the three neighbors, said the owner of a home in the area was having a cottage house added to his property and that the fire was started in debris cleared from the site.

An arson investigator, Sgt. Ron Hanson, said workers building a cabin near where the fire broke out have been questioned, as has the man who hired them. He said all denied responsibility but will be questioned further.

Open burning is against the law in Oakland. Violators face a misdemeanor fine of $500 and a jail sentence of six months to one year, according to the fire marshal’s office.

As search teams and dogs continued the search for bodies, a few homeowners wandered through their burnt-out houses. Two street sweepers pushed ash to the side of the street and even a few joggers were out, trotting through the blackened landscape.

Joan Sautter poked through the ruins of her house, looking for anything that might have survived. A clothes dryer still stood, but when she opened the door to see if her clothes had survived she found only a pile of ashes.

One find was heartening - a ceramic cup her now-grown daughter had made her as a little girl. But another ceramic cup that survived was less cheering.

″I can’t believe this thing survived,″ said Sautter. ″I never even liked it.″

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