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Remembering the Firestorm


Today is the twentieth anniversary of the Oakland Hills Firestorm. I’d like to take a few minutes to remember its victims. There’s actually a wine connection, which I’ll mention at the end.

Anyone who lived in Oakand or south Berkeley on that fateful day, Oct. 20, 1991, will never forget it. It’s seared into my memory, in a way that not even the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which had struck just two years previously, could match. I think that’s because the earthquake was over before you even knew it; it was only 15 seconds long. The Firestorm, by contrast, lasted for hour after hour after agonizing hour.

I learned about the bias of the big media establishment against West Coast news from that Firestorm. Although the New York-based television stations and eastern newspapers certainly covered it, they gave it short shrift. If a disaster of that magnitude had wiped out 3,000 homes in a densely populated New York or Washington, D.C. neighborhood, killing 25 people including firefighters, it would have been the biggest news story of the year. It would even have been a huge story if it had occurred in San Francisco or Los Angeles. But because it was in the East Bay–“just Oakland”–the national news media played it down.

I was on my way home from the gym that Sunday morning. At 11 a.m., it already was turning out to be one of the hottest, driest days of the year, with intense Diablo winds rushing from inland toward the sea. Such weather isn’t unusual in October. Walking east from Broadway, I smelled smoke, and the sky had a peculiar orange tinge. When I got home, I turned the T.V. on to see what was happening. The local stations had already interrupted programming and commercials and gone into nonstop coverage. I went up on the roof of my building, and that’s where I had my mind blown.

The East Bay Hills are just about a mile away, as the crow flies. They dominate the eastern view, rising to about 1,300 feet at their highest, which is a pretty good height considering that most of Oakland is at sea level. Most of the topmost part of the hills is semi-wild parkland, preserved forever as the East Bay Regional Park District, one of the greatest urban wilderness areas in America. But the lower elevations, right down to where the slopes hit the flatlands, were and are densely packed neighborhoods.

I knew the hills well, because I had run their fire trails for many years. So when I stood on my roof and saw a 2-mile wide wall of flame, a hundred feet high, filling the sky with black, roiling smoke, I was terrified. It was clear that a catastrophe of the first order was unfolding, right in the heart of Oakland.

I was glued to the television all afternoon. They reported that a house was being burnt down every 11 seconds! I also packed some things to go, in case I had to evacuate. (I didn’t.) There was a major freeway (the 580) between the fire and my house, but the fire already had jumped two other freeways (the 13 and the 24), and there was no reason it couldn’t leap over another. Not only were the Hills engulfed, but the fire was advancing on three fronts: toward downtown Berkeley, toward the Montclair Village section of Oakland, and, particularly horrifying, it was barreling straight through to Piedmont and Rock Ridge, from where it would easily have taken out my neighborhood, downtown Oakland.

Two months later I wrote an article for the East Bay Express on the fire. I interviewed Oakland firefighters who had battled it. They assured me that they’d had nothing to do with stopping that fire. Nothing at all. In fact, they’d had to retreat four times that afternoon, to save their lives. Miraculously, around 4 p.m. the winds changed, from the offshore Diablos to an onshore pattern. That not only pushed the flames back upon themselves, over areas denuded of fuel that had already burned; but the onshore winds are loaded with moisture from the ocean, and are cool. By evening, when the fire had largely ended, the temperature had gone down by as much as 20 degrees. By that time, about 25,000 firefighters from all over the country had gathered along the fire’s perimeter.

The Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991 was the worst urban wildfire in the nation’s history, and remains so today. I pay my respects here to the families of the people who died–to the people who lost their homes and pets–and to the brave firefighters who risked all and in some cases paid the ultimate price to save us.

The wine connection was that I heard of a guy who had a big wine cellar. When he realized that his house was going to burn down and he had to get the hell out of there, he threw as many bottles of wine as he could into his swimming pool, hoping the water would protect them. It did–but it also peeled off all the labels!

  1. Steve, I remember that day too. I had an all too clear view of it from the roof of where I was working on the SF waterfront. From where I stood it looked as though the Claremont Hotel was going to go up very soon. It must have been very scary that close to it. Everytime I am up on the slopes of Tamalpais (on those narrow little roads, I ask myself “when did this burn last?” The wine in the swimming pool is a good story, it reminded me of a restaurant fire (years ago) in Alameda, where I grew up, that made the Paul Harvey News. Apparently it started in the store room and got hot enough to explode cases of beer that were stored there. Apparently the beer drowned the fire! 🙂

  2. I still remember ashes coming through my open window.

  3. I was heading from Walnut Creek to Golden Gate Park. On arriving, the sun was obscured by horrendous smoke which lent an eerie light to everything. Burnt pages of books, or newspapers, wafted down and grey ash was settling on plants in the arboretum. Driving home and looking across the bay as the hills above the Claremont burned, the biggest flames I have ever seen, I was left speechless. RIP to all the people who perished that day.

  4. This was such a horrible day and it has never left me. I learned the value of loved ones and walking away with NOTHING and realizing that tangible things do not matter. It changed my life forever. May we remember the twenty five souls that lost their lives on this day. GOD BLESS.

    I look at the hills when I visit and remember that day each and every time. God was looking over my family this day.

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