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The Oakland Hills Fire of 1991

Dena Cruz's Experience Through Losing Her Home in the Fire.

By Dena M. Cruz, Esq.
Published: October, 2017

My name is Dena Cruz, I am a lawyer and partner at Berding & Weil. On October 20, 1991, I, along with 3,469 other families, lost my home in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. At the time it was the worst fire involving loss of life and property damage since the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

I bought my home the week before the fire and moved in on Saturday the 19th. It burned down with everything in it the next day.

Although I lost everything I owned, my family managed to escape without injury and we survived, with just a few skirmishes in the rebuilding process. We were luckier than many of our neighbors and friends. For that I am thankful!

Here are a few pointers that I learned during the rebuild process. I hope this will be of some assistance.

  1. Find a Place to Live ASAP! Finding a place to live while you rebuild will be difficult. Numerous people will be looking for the very same rentals. If you have children in school (which may or may not be there also) it will be more complicated. We found a place to rent on the Monday after the fire. When we returned an hour later with a money order (we had no checks) from the bank, the landlord tripled the rent. He claimed to have numerous other offers within the short period of time we were gone. Move FAST. Seal the Deal ASAP! Visit the bank before you meet the landlord. Be prepared for “gougers” on everything! Hopefully, you have insurance to pay for these increased expenses.

  2. Call your insurance agent. They should be able to provide you with a copy of your insurance papers if you were unable to bring it with you when you left your home. The agent will likely be inundated with calls. It may take some time to get a copy of the paperwork. If you are lucky enough to have an online account, this step should be easy.

  3. Most of the insurance companies will have a representative at a designated place in your community for the purpose of helping fire victims process their home and auto insurance claims. The representatives should be able to provide you with some immediate money for living expenses. Expect long lines, be patient.

  4. The insurance company will send in claims adjusters from all over the world. The person who will work with you will likely not be from this area. Do not assume they know anything about your neighborhood or the community. The first thing they will ask from you is a list of everything you own. This is very daunting! If you are to be compensated fairly, you will need to itemize every spoon, shoe, dress, bedding you used to own. Start that list now! You will need to place a value on each item. Visually work from room to room. Take your time! Do not rush this process! You will undoubtedly forget things! The insurance company may or may not ask for proof of ownership. Hopefully, you have a video or pictures of the important items in your home. Our insurance company did not ask for proof. Others did. Check your online accounts for pictures of you and your family in your home. You will be surprised what you find in the background that can help remind you of what you use to own or may be used as verification of ownership.

  5. The first time we were allowed to visit our neighborhood, we saw a few items that although burnt, were still intact. By the time we were allowed to return again, looters had gone through and taken everything of value. If you see something you have to have, take it with you as soon as you can.

  6. Do not rush to rebuild! Take your time! Much to our detriment, we rushed to rebuild and were the first house rebuilt in the Oakland Fire. We lived in a construction nightmare. Our home was surrounded by burnt foundations, dead trees and debris everywhere. No trees, means no birds. No birds equals lots of mice and voles. Adopt a cat or two from the local humane society. Anticipate a constant noisy battle!

  7. Attend as many local meetings as you can and educate yourself on the rebuilding process. The community where you live will likely set up offices to help streamline the rebuild process. By attending these meetings you will better understand the design review process, timing and expectations. Create a neighborhood group and approach this process as a team. You don’t need to do this alone!

  8. I cannot say it enough! Do Not Rush to Rebuild! It will be extremely difficult to find an available local builder in your area! The available insurance money will attract a lot of new builders into your area. Some will be honest and some will not. Make sure you hire a reputable builder. Ask for references. Verify licenses. Failing to do so, can easily result in several years of construction defect litigation. If the local qualified builder can’t get to your home for some time, consider waiting for him or her. They have a reputation to uphold and will be there after the homes are rebuilt to address any concerns you might have. The “Out- of- Towners” will be off to another disaster area.

  9. Do not expect the local governmental agency to ensure that your home is being rebuilt properly. Unless the government official participates in fraud (which is difficult to prove and unlikely), the local inspectors have no duty to make sure your home is being rebuilt to code. If you have any concerns during the process, hire a separate expert to inspect the quality of the construction.

    Our contractor pocketed more than half of the money the insurance company set aside for our home. He underbuilt the foundation. He failed to install any shear wall. He did not use galvanized nails. He did not install any weather barrier under the siding. He underbuilt the HVAC system. He installed the roof improperly. The list went on and on!! We had no idea this was happening! All we saw were shiny new floors and new appliances! Within weeks of occupying the premises, the problems began. All of the sudden his records were lost and he was nowhere to be found! Two years of litigation and multiple expensive experts later, we ended up with a judgment against him, though not enough to complete the work needed after all the litigation expenses were paid.

    We should have reached out to every owner of every home he had built in the last ten years and asked them how they like their home. We should have asked him to arrange a viewing of one of his completed homes.

Questions we should have asked:

  • How long did it take to complete the home? Did the contractor finish the home in a timely fashion?
  • Did the contractor stay within budget? Were there unexpected additional expenses?
  • Who is the contractor using as subcontractors? Are they local? Are they licensed?
  • Was the contractor and his or her crew easy to work with? Did they give you sufficient time to pick out finishes and appliances?
  • Did the contractor address punch list items in a timely fashion and to your satisfaction?
  • Were there any issues after you occupied the home? If so, did the contractor address them in a timely fashion and to your satisfaction?
  • Would you hire him or her again?

Our failure to investigate and satisfy ourselves that we were working with a reputable builder and licensed subcontractors was our undoing. Do not make the same mistake!!!

Although my experience was not the best, we had help and assistance from numerous kind friends and strangers. That is what I remember the most from this time of my life.

Please take one day at a time. If it gets overwhelming, which it will, take a deep breath and a break from the process. Time is your best friend.

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Oakland Hills Fire

Click here to watch Dena Cruz's experience through the Oakland Hills fire of 1991.

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