20 years on, share your memories of a disaster

The Oakland-Berkeley hills in the aftermath of the 1991 Firestorm. Photo: Richard Misrach

Twenty years ago next month, on a sunny Sunday in October, a raging fire took hold and — driven by hot, dry northeasterly winds — swept through the Oakland-Berkeley hills causing massive destruction and loss.

The flames jumped two freeways, eventually spreading across 1,520 acres, incinerating more than 3,300 homes at an average rate of 11 seconds each and, ultimately, injuring 150 people and leaving 25 dead.

The Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm still looms large in the collective memories of our community. Nobody who lived here at the time was immune to the impact of the traumatic event — and, for many, their lives changed forever on October 20, 1991.

Berkeleyside is marking the 20th anniversary of the fire by asking readers to share their recollections and thoughts on the disaster, its impact and long-term consequences. We will pull together all your submissions and publish them as part of a week-long series of articles that will appear, and be permanently archived, on the site.

Send us a few lines or many, tell us about your personal experience of the fire, share a photograph, a video. Perhaps you made a resolution or embarked in a new direction after that fateful day — email us at tips@berkeleyside.com, leave a comment here, and/or upload images onto our Flickr pool. [Update, 09.29.11: Reader Peter Jenny reminds us that oral histories are good too — if you prefer to record your thoughts, send us an MP3.)

Berkeleyside is also collaborating with the Berkeley Art Museum around its forthcoming exhibition by Berkeley photographer Richard Misrach. The show, 1991: Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, Photographs by Richard Misrach runs from October 12 through February 5, 2012, along with a companion exhibition, “Richard Misrach: Photographs from the Collection”.

Berkeleyside is supporting a community evening for the show on October 11, at 5:30pm, where BAM members and guests from around the community are invited to preview the exhibition.

We will also be partnering with BAM on an open-mic-style gathering at the museum in mid-November, in recognition of our shared experience of the firestorm and its aftermath. We will provide more details nearer the time.

In the meantime, please allow us to act as a community forum and help us to assemble a meaningful collection of shared memories on the 20th anniversary of a disaster that touched us all.

Richard Misrach: A focus on the after-story

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  • Vdeer

    Thank you for a place to express ourselves. Will be contributing. Best wishes for a save no fire season!

  • Anonymous

    Minor typo on the second line of the fifth paragraph:

    “Perhaps your made a resolution…”

    I believe it should be “Perhaps you made a resolution…” or maybe “Perhaps your family made a resolution…”

    Feel free to delete this comment once it’s fixed.

  • Shutterbuggery

    The morning of the fire I was driving on Grizzly Peak testing a new truck with my wife, headed south towards Fish Ranch Road. The wind was howling on the ridge and the road was completely covered with pine needles and eucalyptus leaves — the asphalt was invisible. The temperature was already warm and as we went around a final turn I said something about fire danger, too many pine needles, we need to head back. Exactly at that moment the trees cleared and we both stared right at a HUGE column of fire, a truly gigantic plume, hundreds of feet high and unbelievably wide. It was a single column of superheated air and flame, blood red in the center, fading to orange and then black as the column shifted. The wind was howling as the wind on the ridge merged with the column of fire, creating its own updraft and sucking all the loose leaves, pine needles etc downward. I slammed on the brakes, spun around and we went back north on Grizzly Peak, dropping down to lower ground in Berkeley where we stopped to watch in stunned silence at the pillar of flame and praying people were getting out. Hours later we were still there. 

  • Thank you for sharing this incredible memory. Hopefully you will inspire others to add to our collection of memories.

  • Lori

    Heading back to Berkeley from Walnut Creek, the smoke was already visible over the Caldecott Tunnel.  I usually take Fish Ranch Road back to North Berkeley, but that day, I went through the tunnel.  Although I saw no flames, the smoke was covering the sky.  Back at home, I watched the smoke plume head west from the hills.  Listening for alerts, and even though I was about a mile from the fire, I began to pack things in case of an evacuation.  I sat there, feeling sadness for those that were being affected and fearing that the jewel of that area, the Claremont Hotel, may be history on that day.

  • BTinSF

    I had taken an opportunity to enjoy the weather by going up to San Francisco’s Corona Heights and noticed the smoke across the Bay.  People began to comment on there being a fire.  My feeling, in a way, was one of relief since when I moved to the Bay Area I had looked at a variety of homes on both sides of the Bay and, while I bought in San Francisco, my second choice was probably a place in what was known as Hiller Highlands which I believe was in the area that burned.

    On the other hand, since the fire came so soon after the 1989 quake and also in October there was definitely a feeling that the Bay Area as a whole was under siege.

  • jjohannson

    There is quite a bit of film on YouTube of that day.  This clip shows how the speed and the magnitude of the fire forced one neighborhood’s residents to flee on foot.


  • Thanks for sharing that, jjohanson. I just watched the video and am flabbergasted, shocked. It seems unbelievable that people weren’t leaping out of their cars and running for their lives. Perhaps I say that with the benefit of hindsight, however.

  • Peter C.

    Though the fire got out of control Sunday, October 20, the fire started the day prior. I was with 70K fans at Memorial Stadium on that date to see the Cal football team play the number one-ranked Washington Huskies. Cal had it’s first ranked football team in well over a decade, so there was an unusual amount of excitement in the stadium that day. I remember seeing a plume of smoke south of the stadium that afternoon, and Joe Starkey may have even made a comment about it during the game broadcast. They put out the fire that afternoon, but not all of the embers were extinguished, and all hell broke loose the following day. At the time of the fire I was living in Walnut Creek. I remember driving back through the Caldecott Tunnel when it reopened and seeing the devastation for the first time. It felt post-apocalyptic, alien. I still look up at the hills when I’m driving through the tunnel too see if I can spot signs of the transformation of the hills from the fire–new growth, new buildings, etc. Like the ’89 earthquake, these moments never really leave you.

  • Heather W.

    I was at home on Valley Street, near Dwight Way. By the time we figured out what the smoke was from, it was quickly moving toward the bay — the whole sky went dark and ash was falling. Knowing very little about what was going on, the news could only report what was known at the moment, I packed bags for my 5 year old son and myself so we could flee the city should it become necessary. I watched and listened to the news of the fire’s spread, and hoped that it could be kept under control. My BF at the time and one of his other friends, went to Hiller Highlands where another friend lived, to see if they could help. BF came back reeking of smoke and covered in soot. To this day, as I commute through the tunnel each day, I check the temperature and the wind factor and I always feel very anxious when the traffic backs up there. 

  • amcbuzz

    At the time of the fire, I lived in San Rafael. That Sunday morning I was driving south on 101 to Mission St. Raphael. “Fog” was blowing high overhead–except it was coming from the east, which seemed weird. When I got to church, everyone was talking about a fire in the East Bay. Then I knew the “fog” was smoke. I was sickened at the thought of a fire huge enough to spread such an extended cloud.

    In 1996 I moved to a new home in Claremont Knolls. Even after 20 years, I can see remnants of the destruction on our own property: Portions of the old foundation in our home’s crawl space…partially buried charred tree stumps on the steep slope of our lot…flower bulbs still sprouting from the original owner’s garden.

  • Sue

    When I first heard about the fire, my husband and I were driving down Highway 1 somewhere around Willits as I recall.  We were supposed to be away for the weekend and due to arrive in Bodega Bay to spend the night when we heard the radio reports of this incredible fire.  My in-laws were housesitting our 2 greyhounds at our house in West Berkeley, and at that point we were not sure whether to head home or not.  After listening to more radio reports we just knew we could not relax and luxuriate in a nice hotel while we worried about our  house, mostly where would my in-laws evacuate to with two dogs in the back of their sedan?  It seemed like FOREVER to drive down Highway 1, and of course no cell phones, only radio to listen to and it seemed bad, very bad.  We were a wreck. By the time we got to the San Richmond Rafael Bridge, it was dark and I will never forget being able to see the FLAMES from there!  It was like a bad dream.  When we got home, I think we all stayed up most of the night watching TV, who could sleep with all that going on.  The rest is just a blur now, I think I blanked a lot of the horror out of my memory. I do remember calling the hotel where we were supposed to stay explaining why we did not show up.  They understood!