Looking for familiar landmarks, seeing what little was left

Aftermath of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm by Richard Misrach, part of an exhibition opening tonight at the Berkeley Art Museum

October 23, 1991: At the foot of Broadway Terrace, I squeezed into a police car with another couple. We rode in silence, afraid and anxious to get close enough to see what remained of our homes and our streets. We weren’t allowed to drive ourselves in yet; hazardous sparks and hot spots still glowed in some places. Fallen power lines might still be live. Some reports said that everything that could have burned, did. Still, I didn’t know quite what to expect.

It was so odd. Things at the bottom of the hill looked normal. Houses, cars, the golf course, blocks of undisturbed homes left untouched by the fire. But then, a block or so further up the hill, it all came into view.

The first thing I noticed were the chimneys, tall brick columns still attached to their hearths punctuating wide expanses of black, all the way up to the top of the hills. And it was quiet. No birds, no other cars, no people.

The hills of our destroyed neighborhood resembled a moonscape: a post-apocalyptic expanse of scorched earth, blackened trees and chimneys standing like sentinels left to watch over the ruins. Gray foundations marked the footprints of houses no longer there. We were shocked at the vastness of the damage. Stone cherubs stood in what had been a backyard; a fountain surrounded by ashes; skeletons of patio furniture.


As the police car rounded the corner onto our street, I felt a hard knot forming in my stomach. What would be left? Anything?

I looked out the window for a familiar landmark: our neighbor’s fence, the house high up the hill that used to be a hunting lodge years ago. But there weren’t any landmarks. Was this my street?

The car crept along slowly, and the woman sitting next to me in the back seat reached out and squeezed my hand. The car came to a stop across from the schoolyard on Hermosa.

Oh, but that couldn’t be right. No.

I got out of the car and took a closer look.


Our house had fallen in on itself. Standing in the driveway, I could see uphill into the backyard, right through where the walls had stood; right through the kitchen where the kids ate their cereal in the morning, right through the living room where we put up our Christmas tree each year. Only metal remained recognizable: bedsprings, shells of the appliances, frames of deck chairs. Everything else was splintered, blackened, reduced to ash and unrecognizable bits. The barbeque was there, in the back, where the wooden deck had been. But the rest—the house, the trees, the fence: all gone.

And then I noticed the red brick planters, the ones that held the daffodils each spring, and there was our mailbox, untouched by the fire.

My husband Bruce went back a few days later to see for himself. He walked around looking for anything that might have survived the extreme temperature. Inside the blackened shell of our dishwasher he found some coffee mugs from our interrupted Sunday morning — my daughter remembers that one of the mugs had a scene from our favorite movie, Gone with the Wind, on it.

But he also found an oddly shaped sculpture, formed from melted glass folded over itself in layers, like a ruffled skirt, with openings at both ends. The glass holds impressions of the tines of a fork; a tiny chunk of charcoal hides within its hardened folds. A spoon juts out of one of the curved ends.

This delicate, fire-hardened sculpture remains the only artifact we have from the house. We kept the mugs, but abandoned them after a week or two. No one wanted to use them.

Risa Nye is a Bay Area native. Her essays and articles have appeared in a number of publications. Risa has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College and lives with her husband in Oakland.


This article is part of our “Firestorm Special” series which is appearing 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 tonight 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.