Twenty years after a catastrophe, recollections — Part 2

Berkeleyside invited readers to submit their stories about the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. Here we publish the second part of three selections.

By 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 who were being affected and fearing that the jewel of that area, the Claremont Hotel, may be history on that day.

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By Tom Miller: Children have an acute sense of smell, and as we gathered for a backyard party with friends in North Oakland our five year old Gabby said she smelled smoke. Minutes later smoke was indeed visible to the north. A reporter friend from the SF Chronicle called the city desk — which had nothing to report. Choosing to believe my eyes, I left the party to check on my elderly mother and aunt who lived with us in our Panoramic Hill compound. I drove to the end of Broadway, under the freeway and up the hill to get to Claremont Avenue. I passed houses on the hill already ablaze, burning away in silence — no sirens, no fire trucks. By the time I made it home a few minutes later smoke was billowing over the top of Panoramic Hill.  My mother and aunt were busy  spraying water on the roofs with garden hoses.

They had been warned by the bartender at the Bison Brewery on Telegraph, who called to tell them the hill was on fire when he saw the smoke and flames through the Bison’s giant picture windows. I hasten to add my mother and aunt were not regulars at the Bison, although they would have been welcome. I had helped establish the Bison a few years before and the staff knew where I lived. Like many in Berkeley, the bartender had many skills, and one of them was forest fire fighting, and it was he who raced up the hill to show Oakland fire fighters where to fight the fire strategically, saving many houses in Claremont Canyon.


I drove to the top of Panoramic Hill, and there was the fire in full display, moving from house to house in the strong wind that carried the ashes across the Bay — fortunately for us away from Panoramic Hill. My sister-in-law made a dramatic composite photograph of the fire (above, shown on video) which hangs on our wall. The next day the top of Panoramic Hill was the only vantage point for homeowners to see whether their homes had survived across the canyon, as the fire continued to burn. Our three-generation family was ordered to leave the hill, taking refuge in an empty home a friend had just built. Later I learned how our predecessors had, for thousands of years, adapted to both earthquake and fire by building homes with sod roofs, which fires burned over, supported by untied crossbeams which moved but did not collapse when the ground shook. Maybe, some day, we will have such wisdom.

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By female student, aged 15: “Well, I think that my house burning down probably had the biggest impact on my life recently. Last October 20th, eleven days before my fifteenth birthday, my house burned down, and at the time, it felt like my memories, things that I treasured, had all burned with it. Now I realize that NO ONE and NOTHING can take away your memories. Twenty-five years of my dad’s artwork went up in those flames, including a bust that he did of me when I was eleven years old, as well as my grandma’s art. Now I am coming to realize that all of those material possessions really do not matter that much. I will always have my memories and, although it does hurt to think of all my stuff destroyed… what doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger, really. I started going to a support group at Berkeley High though, and it really helped me deal with my loss. I feel much better about the whole situation now, and I can talk about it without crying now.”

This account was written in class in response to a journal question “What event/circumstance/person has had the greatest impact in your life? Explain.” Originally printed in “Ask Me if I Care: Voices From an American High School” by Nancy Rubin.

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By BT in SF: 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.

These reader contributions are  part of our “Firestorm Special” series which is appearing on Berkeleyside in the run-up to October 20, 2011, the 20th anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. As part of its commemoration coverage, Berkeleyside will be publishing more recollections from readers. Read previous Firestorm Special stories.