The Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm in October 1991 killed 25 people, destroyed close to 4,000 dwellings, and burned a huge swath of Oakland and Berkeley. The fire broke out on a clear and hot Sunday morning when strong winds whipped up embers from a blaze in the Oakland hills that firefighters thought they had extinguished. Within a short time, flames were everywhere, consuming dry brush, dry shake roofs, jumping from home to home.
Above, a video shows the sheer force of the fire and the panic as local residents tried to flee. (Warning: some readers may find the footage upsetting.) Below, writer Deirdre English recounts her personal experience of running from the flames.
By Deirdre English
It happened so fast. Five minutes later and we would all be dead.
There had been no warning, no sound of fire sirens, no squad car commanding an evacuation. At 11:00, I was making breakfast for houseguests when we smelled smoke and saw the sky darken. At 11:30, we were running for our lives.
Towers of flame were bearing down on us from three directions, and we had nothing left to do but abandon our cars and outrace the fire as it closed in behind us.
Our neighborhood was one of the first areas hit by flames. There was nothing but dry hillside between the spot where the fire began and my street, and in the minutes it took to sweep down the hillside, the flames had already become a firestorm.
At 11:00, my visitors – my best friend’s son, Ben Ehrenreich, and his two best friends, Adam and Jeff – and I went outside to see where the smoke was coming from. We saw black plumes rising from over the hill. It still seemed far away.
I called the fire department. “Yes, we know about it, firefighters are on the scene,” said the voice on the other end of 911 in a reassuringly bored tone. I called a neighbor to be sure she was aware, and got her answering machine. “Guess you’re not home. Well, I’ll come up and hose down your roof if it gets any smokier around here,” I said lightly. I hung up and went back to thinking about breakfast when the phone rang. It was my husband, Don, who had left the house about a half hour earlier and was near downtown Berkeley. He had seen the smoke and wanted to make sure I had. “Are you kidding? Of course! I’ve already closed all the windows. I’m getting a little concerned.”
Don advised me to prepare to evacuate. “Get the car and put the valuables in just in case. I’m on my way home,” he said.
Even though it seemed premature, Ben brought the car to the front door, and I asked Adam and Jeff to carry out my most cherished possessions, a framed work of art of mostly sentimental value to me, inherited from my father. By now ash was falling through the smoke, and the air was rapidly getting darker. A sense of crisis set in.
The boys threw their backpacks into the car, and I frantically ran into my office and grabbed a file of documents and an armload of photographs off the shelf. I remember pausing for one moment of paralysis, wondering what I was forgetting to take. Then we all jumped into the car and took off.
We only got as far as the corner. I swung to the left, and saw nothing but dense black smoke and shooting embers ahead. I backed up and tried going to the right. The hillside on both sides of the road was aflame, and burning branches were falling onto the street. It was a life-or-death decision: Gun the car and drive past the flames, into what? Or break and back away, admitting that we were trapped. I froze for a moment and heard Ben yelling, “No, no, Deirdre, don’t go.” In the same moment I knew it was too dangerous to drive. We had to run.
Two other cars containing neighbors also stopped and emptied. Now there were nine of us bolting towards the only way left to escape. It was downhill, down the upwind side of the hill. There was no path, just a steep open field of dry brush. We ran under a tree limb and over a fallen-down fence, staying together as a group, helping each other and yelling to each other as we fled. To my horror, the hillside had already erupted into flame not more than 15 feet away. Now that I had witnessed the speed and fury of the firestorm, I know that in moments we could be engulfed.
We emerged on Grandview Avenue where people were evacuating, but still totally unaware of how fast the fire was converging on them. I tried to flag down two cars which passed us, crammed with people, uncomprehending how dire the threat was to anyone on foot. A third car stopped, though it too was full. I shouted to the three boys to leap onto the trunk. They held on, and it sped away.
All of the others in our group were picked up one or two at a time by residents fleeing in cars. A man came out of his house to escape in one car and threw the keys to his second car to my neighbor Tony and me. We tooled out of the danger area in his gold Mercedes Benz. I rolled down the window and called out to all the relaxed people I saw – some of them simply standing and looking skyward at the smoke: “House are going up; time to go! Evacuate! Evacuate!” I felt like Cassandra. It was as though I was driving backwards in time to a moment of calm that I had lived a half an hour earlier.
At the bottom of the hill, on Claremont Avenue, I found my husband, and parted with the Mercedes and my neighbor, Tony, an artist who had left behind all his oil paintings.
My neighborhood happened to have been home to a number of writers and artists whose lifework has been destroyed. A hand-built organ, a collection of original photographic prints, a manuscript of a book in progress, the master tapes of a radio play – all of this and more was lost within the space of a block.
It doesn’t matter. All that matters is life, surviving. I have flames under my eyelids when I try to sleep at night. But by day I am filled with the joy of gratitude, the thankfulness that life is given to us, and an increasing sense of unreality that there ever was a moment when I felt like a moth in a fireplace.
First published in “Outrunning the Firestorm” by Pacific News Service, and reprinted in “Fire in the Hills: A Collective Remembrance,” a collection of remembrances about the fire by 50 local writers, poets, and photographers, edited by Patricia Adler. Mrs. Dalloway’s is currently selling copies of “Fire in the Hills”.
Deirdre English, former editor of Mother Jones”, directs the Felker Magazine Course at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. English did not move back into the fire zone. She now lives in San Francisco.
This article is the first in our “Firestorm Special” series which will run on Berkeleyside in the run-up to Oct. 20, 2011, the 20th anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. As part of its commemoration coverage, Berkeleyside will be publishing more recollections from readers. We are also supporting the Berkeley Art Museum and its exhibition of photographs by Berkeley photographer Richard Misrach, “1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath“. You are invited to a free community evening tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. to preview the exhibition with Misrach in attendance. Misrach’s compelling photographs, taken 20 years ago during the week following the Firestorm, are unveiled for the first time in this show.