25 years after the Oakland/Berkeley firestorm, Risa Nye pens memoir

On Oct. 20, 1991, a wildfire ripped through the Oakland hills and parts of Berkeley, killing 25 people and destroying 2,483 houses and 437 apartments and condos. Risa Nye, an Oakland writer who writes the Ms Barstool column for Nosh, was at home with her family in Oakland when the fire began. Since it was on the other side of the freeway, Nye, who was about to turn 40, didn’t quite believe the flames would reach her house. So when the family evacuated, they took some precious items but left behind many important keepsakes.

Read Berkeleyside’s special 20th anniversary Firestorm coverage.

Nye has written a memoir about the tragedy and how she and her family coped with their losses called, “There Was a Fire Here.” She Writes Press published the book, which Zac Unger, a former Oakland firefighter and the author of “Working Fire,” says is a “searing memoir” that is “told with humor and grace.” There will be a book release party for Nye Thursday at 7 p.m. at The Bay Area Children’s Theater Performance Hall, 2162 Mountain Blvd. in Oakland (corner of Mountain and Snake Road). Nye will be in conversation with Alex Green.

Berkeleyside recently spoke with Nye about her book.


What motivated you to write a memoir about the fire 25 years after it happened? How hard was it to recreate the events of that time? What techniques did you use to capture the period?

The memoir had been in the works for many years. The push was to get it published this year in honor of the 25th anniversary of the fire. The anniversary provided a good incentive to get it done in a timely manner. Recreating the events wasn’t hard at all — I had kept newspapers from 1991, starting with the day of the fire, in a big box, and I had access to other reports and documents online. Another great resource was a short film, made by a Stanford graduate student just a few months after the fire, which included footage of the fire and interviews with my older son and me. I’d also kept a journal during the planning and reconstruction phases, so I had my words as well as the words of others to refer to as I wrote.

Can you describe the events of Oct. 21? At what point did you realize that the flames might reach your house? What did you take with you? What do you regret not taking?

I was able to describe the events of the days surrounding the fire in great detail, even after all these years: the heat, the wind, what my husband and I decided to take with us, where to go when we evacuated, how certain we were that the fire couldn’t jump the freeway, which, of course, it did. I took the leather jacket I’d received for my birthday the previous year. As you recall, October 20 was a very hot day. But I loved that jacket and I still have it. The biggest regrets about what I left behind have to do with the letters and mementos of my childhood and the years before I was married and had a family — they have no monetary value, but those letters were my only connection to my grandfather and to my younger self. I write about several of the “artifacts” that were lost in the fire, some whimsical and others more heartfelt.

We evacuated around 1 p.m. in the afternoon and heard later from a neighbor that our block went up in flames around 5 p.m. that evening. Other neighbors stayed a lot longer, and one reported watching our houses burn. We didn’t know that our house had burned until October 22, two days later.

The Oakland-Berkeley hills in the aftermath of the 1991 Firestorm. Photo copyright Richard Misrach
The Oakland-Berkeley hills in the aftermath of the 1991 Firestorm. Photo: copyright Richard Misrach. See more of Misrach’s photographs of the landscape after the fire.

Did your sense of community change after the fire when you were no longer living across the street from your children’s elementary school. How long did feelings of fragmentation last?

One of the saving graces after the fire was the school community. The parents organized and provided meals and other kinds of support. We had the benefit of carpools and after basketball practice pickups when I had to be in two places at once. We lived in Moraga after the fire, but never really felt like part of that community. I don’t even remember meeting more than one neighbor, though we lived there for over a year. I always felt connected to my Oakland and East Bay friends, and experienced a wave of joy every time I came back home through the tunnel.


Why did you center the book around particular items you lost in the fire? What item do you think about most?

I chose to put in the short artifact chapters as a way of breaking up the narrative and honoring the everyday items that were part of my home and my life before the fire. I think we all have a few things we never stop to look at or appreciate on an everyday basis, but maybe those things have a deeper meaning we’ve lost sight of. Also, by creating little stories about these things, it helped to paint a picture of what my life was like before kids, before marriage, before the fire. It was a way for me to commemorate those forty years of life before it all changed. And, in a way, I wrote about these things for my children and grandchildren. My almost nine-year-old granddaughter was fascinated to read about her mother as a young teenager.

As I’ve done more writing, I would say the thing I think about most are those letters from my grandfather who was my earliest champion when it came to writing. He encouraged me to write — as far back as I can remember — but maybe he just wanted more letters and attention from me! I do have the letters he wrote my father when my dad was in the army and in later years, and he expressed himself eloquently — in several languages.

risa nye bookDo you think having children made it easier or harder to recover from the fire? Why?

Having children made it imperative to get moving quickly after the fire. My husband and I had to find a place to live and to make that place feel like home. We didn’t think we had the luxury to ponder our next move and debate a lot of options. That’s why we decided to rebuild on our property practically the minute we found out the house was gone. This “making a house a home” part turned out to be a big challenge, as I imagine it was for the other families as well. By replacing some of the familiar things we’d lost, my husband and I were able to re-establish the family routines that made us all feel more secure and comfortable — things like favorite books for bedtime reading and some of the music we all loved. We took the big binder full of our favorite recipes, so once we got a kitchen set up, we were able to make some familiar meals. But frankly, there was a lot of take-out and pizza in between the casseroles our friends brought over. It took time to make our temporary house feel like the real thing.

How did you get the name Ms Barstool? What is your Nosh column about?

I have to assign credit to (or blame) to my son Myles for the name Ms. Barstool. Several years ago, my two older kids and I were in Philadelphia and walked past a store called Mr Barstool. We all laughed, and ever since then I’ve been Ms Barstool. Actually, barstools are part of my family history. My grandfather owned and operated a skid row bar in San Francisco after the war. My mother was very accident prone, and every time she sustained a new injury, my father would explain it by saying she’d fallen off a barstool. I don’t think she liked that very much. Anyway, I believe when I consulted with my son about my Twitter account years ago, he stuck me with @MsBarstool. It helped me get going on my cocktail career, which began when I wrote about East Bay happy hours for examiner.com.


Catch up on Ms Barstool’s columns in Nosh

As Ms Barstool writing for Nosh, I visit bars around the East Bay and report back on the cocktails, the ambiance, and the vibe — and try to make the reader want to come on down and join me on the next barstool. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to check in on both the new and the well-established bars in the ever-expanding dining and drinking scene here. I don’t write reviews per se, but I try to create a sense of place while letting the reader know what the specialty of the house might be and what creative things are going on behind the bar. I think sometimes about what would happen if Ms Barstool and Miss Manners went out for a drink together.

You also write about film. Can you talk a bit about your favorite kinds of things to write about?

I’ve been fortunate to be able to write about film, food, and drinks — as well as other things that interest me. I attended the Winter Fancy Food Show, for example, and got the chance to talk to people who started their own businesses making cookies, or barbecue sauce, or whatever. I’ve always admired people who come up with an idea and follow it through. I’ve toured distilleries and learned how the various spirits are made, which ties in with Ms Barstool columns. I’ve enjoyed conducting interviews with writers, bakers, chocolatiers, inventors, playwrights, and pie-makers over the years. There are so many interesting stories to hear everywhere you look. I hope to keep being able to tell them.

What are your hopes for this book?

My main hope for the book is that people will read it! But beyond that, I think my book carries a positive message of hope and resilience. Readers will see how one family was able to start over and rebuild a life and a home. It’s also an opportunity for an interested reader to get behind the headlines of an event like the firestorm and see what it was like to go through that horrendous loss from one person’s perspective. I’ve included pictures too, so the devastation is in there, but so are some of the artifacts I write about — it’s a very personal book. At the recent book festival in Berkeley, a woman visiting from Ohio bought a copy to give to her daughter. She said her daughter had recently suffered a great loss, and she thought my book might offer her some help in her recovery. I hope so.

Related:
Browse Ms Barstool’s columns in Nosh
Berkeleyside’s 20th anniversary Firestorm Special coverage
Looking for familiar landmarks, seeing what little was left (10.11.11)

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