A fire more destructive to Berkeley than 1991 Firestorm

On the day we remember a catastrophic fire that affected many people’s lives locally, it may also pay to recall another fire which happened 68 years before the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm and which was far more destructive to Berkeley.

The 1991 fire razed 63 Berkeley homes out of a total of more than 3,300. On September 17, 1923, however, a raging fire consumed some 640 structures, including 584 homes in the densely built neighborhoods north of the campus. Although the exact cause was never determined, the fire began in the undeveloped chaparral and grasslands of Wildcat Canyon, and was pushed towards the south west by a strong, gusty, and intensely dry northeasterly wind.

The Berkeley Fire Department, aided by a number of UC Berkeley students, was unable to stop the fire as it approached the north edge of the campus at Hearst Avenue.

The fire was eventually extinguished by the humid afternoon breeze coming off the Bay.

In commemoration of the 88th anniversary of Berkeley’s Great Fire, the Berkeley Public Library recently released a downloadable electronic version of one of its most informative and rarest documents of that period, “The Story of the Berkeley Fire of September 17, 1923.” The library safeguards its non-circulating original in the History Room, downtown, where it can be examined only on Saturday afternoons or by appointment. (Download the PDF file.)

The booklet argues against the prevailing notion at the time that wood-shingle roofs, catching windblown embers, were the principal cause of the fire’s rapid spread. Instead the author excoriates the City Council for its failure to maintain firebreaks in the hills to save money.

This article is part of Berkeleyside’s “Firestorm Special” series which marks the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. Tomorrow, we will conclude with information about where to commemorate the Firestorm and tips for being prepared for future disasters. Read previous Firestorm Special stories.

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  • Anonymous

    My 91 year old aunt just wrote me: “When you speak of “The Berkeley Fire” I think of the BIG one in 1923. It’s one of my earliest memories.  I remember Uncle Sam driving Auntie Dora, my mother and me in his old Dodge to the scene days later –blocks and blocks of smoldering cinders just west of Euclid Ave. on Virginia St., north of the campus…I remember the brick smoke stacks and concrete steps — all that was left of blocks of houses, some of them very big frat houses. And I remember the awful smell of the smoke and ashes…some things are just imprinted on the brain.” 

  • NJRUC: Thank you sharing the fascinating memories of your aunt.