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The Oakland Firestorm: 30 years ago today


Today is the 30th anniversary of the Oakland Hills Firestorm, a disaster that impacted all of us who live in the inner East Bay.

I remember the day well. The fire had actually begun on Saturday, Oct. 19, but the Oakland Fire Department showed up, squashed it out, and thought it was over. In fact, most of us didn’t even realize there’d been a fire that day.

It was the next morning, Sunday Oct. 20, that the merde hit the fan; the fire flared up again, only the winds were much more ferocious. I had gone for my workout at the downtown Oakland YMCA and was leaving around noon, when I noticed the sky was turning reddish-brown, and ash and cinders were raining down. I heard sirens everywhere. When I got home, in those pre-Internet days (no Twitter to turn to), I switched on the T.V. to see what was happening, and KTVU was reporting on the fire. I went up on my building’s roof (I’m in Adams Point) and there it was, a huge column of smoke that seemed at least a mile wide. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen; and, of course, back then, we had very little experience with wildfires in the Bay Area.

My cousin, Maxine, was then working as Planning Director for the East Bay Regional Park District, which is exactly where the fire seemed to be. It being Sunday, she wasn’t in the office, but was home in San Mateo. I called and told her her parks were on fire. I gave her the details, as I understood them: the fire had jumped Highway 24. It had jumped Highway 13. It was roaring towards the Claremont Hotel, towards Montclair Village, towards Piedmont.

“Are you going to evacuate?” she asked.

“No. The 580 freeway is between the fire and my neighborhood.”

“But didn’t you tell me the fire has already jumped two freeways?”

Well, I hung up, packed my valuable papers, got the cat crate for Mr. P., and was ready to leave town!

Fortunately, at around 5 p.m. that Sunday, the wind shifted from offshore (fueled by the Diablos) to onshore, which brought cooling winds and fog; and the firefighters (who by that point numbered thousands) were able to establish their perimeter and let the fire burn back upon itself. I reported on all this in a December, 1991 issue of the East Bay Express, for which I interviewed firefighters for their own stories. The firefighters, who included a Battalion Chief, guaranteed me that, had the wind not shifted, it was likely that downtown Berkeley, Montclair, Piedmont and possibly even downtown Oakland would have burned.

A few days after the fire, Marilyn and I drove up Broadway Terrace to survey the damage. (The National Guard had not yet shut down the fire zone to non-residents.) Our tour lasted only about five minutes, before we were hit with a wave of guilt: What the hell were we doing, sightseeing among the carnage? So we turned around and got out.

The first time I saw the Firestorm Tile Mural Memorial, at the Rockridge BART station, I broke down in tears. It still chokes me up, all these years later. For me, personally, the Firestorm had a much greater emotional impact than Loma Prieta had. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I knew those hills like the palm of my hand. I had run just about every square inch of them, at the North Oakland Sports Center, above the Caldecott Tunnel, up Tunnel Road and through the woods along Skyline. For many years afterward, whenever I took BART into San Francisco, there was a point in West Oakland where you could see the remains of the collapsed Cypress Structure, with rebar sticking out from torn concrete slabs, straight through to the Hills, with the vicious scars of destruction; and I would think, “These are two of the worst disasters in the history of America, and you can see them both right here.” I still think that, even though the scars and the freeway are long gone. Some things, you just can’t forget.

  1. An astonishing day, to be sure. In addition to my day job of writing about wine, I spent a great deal of time coaching advanced soccer teams. Our group of coaches was training that day at the College of Alameda, which has a pretty good view of the Oakland Hills. When the fire started, it was mostly white and gray smoke.

    Among the ranks of our coaches was a Captain in the Contra Costa County Fire Dept, whose station was about five miles from the fire. As long as the smoke stayed grey to white, no structures were involved. And for about an hour, that seemed okay. And then it turned black and we all knew that this was something else.

    I remember several things about that day. One of the players involved in the demonstration lived up the hill from the Claremont Hotel, and we knew from checking on our car radios that the fire was right there. That kid knew, before he left the field, that his house was probably gone–and it was.

    I knew that my son, attending UC Berkeley, lived just below the Claremont Hotel. No cell phones in those days, so left the training early, went home and got him to clear out.

    One of my closest friends lives still in the Oakland Hills. He called and asked if he could move into our house because the fire was rapidly coming his way. Ultimately, his house did not burn.

    But, I had a kid on my team who lived just a block up the hill. I got a call the next day telling me “Coach, I need a new uniform”. That family lost everything. Players on our team outfitted that kid with everything from new slippers and pajamas to school clothes.

    Happy story of sorts: rather than those many kids from our assorted teams dropping out of soccer to recover their lives, soccer gave them a respite.

    Later that day, I went out of my house and starting gathering up the ash that had accumulated. One piece of paper, unburned, has the page heading, Nuclear Accident.

    That was thirty years ago, and it is as clear in our memories as if it just happened.

  2. Yes, an amazing, frightening day. What a story, Charlie! Thank you for sharing it with us.

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