Search Results for: firestorm special

Op-ed: Why undergrounding utilities is not the answer to earthquake and firestorm safety

Print Friendly

With the anniversaries of the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm occurring in the middle of a “hot” election, there’s been much discussion about safety in the hills. Councilwoman Susan Wengraf has made this a key issue in her bid for re-election to the Council for District 6, by promising to “underground all utilities in the city” — a promise that is not only not impractical but dangerous because it leads the city away from solutions that will actually save … Continue reading »

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Risa Nye
Print Friendly

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 7:00 p.m. at The Bay Area Children’s Theater Performance Hall, 2162 Mountain Blvd. in Oakland (corner of Mountain and Snake Rd). 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. … Continue reading »

Tagged , , , ,

Reminder: Share your Firestorm memories at BAM

Misrach swimming pool
Print Friendly

As part of a series of public events supporting its current exhibition by Berkeley photographer Richard Misrach, the Berkeley Art Museum is inviting the local community to gather at the museum this Sunday afternoon to share memories of the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm.

At the BAM/PFA “Tell Your Stories: Open Mic in the Galleries” event, the museum is turning the microphone over to the community. People will be encouraged to talk about their memories amid Misrach’s compelling photographs, taken 20 years ago during the week following the Firestorm and unveiled for the first time in this exhibition. … Continue reading »

Tagged , , ,

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. … Continue reading »

Print Friendly
Tagged , , , ,

No warning, then a crisis: Outrunning the Firestorm

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. … Continue reading »

Print Friendly
Tagged , ,

On 20th anniversary, community remembers Firestorm

Berkeley photographer Richard Misrach captured the devastation caused by the Firestorm. .Photo: copyright Richard Misrach
Print Friendly

As the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Oakland-Firestorm approaches, the community is preparing to commemorate it in a number of different ways, including with city initiatives and collaborative cultural experiences.

While Oakland was much more affected by the devastating fire than Berkeley — only 63 of the homes destroyed that fateful day in October 1991 were in Berkeley, from a total of 3,354 — geographical boundaries became irrelevant as the whole community experienced the trauma of the experience as one.

The cities of Berkeley and Oakland have joined with other community partners to mark the anniversary with a formal commemorative ceremony of remembrance, and they are also taking the opportunity to remind people to take emergency preparedness measures.

On October 22, people are invited to gather at the Rockridge BART Firestorm Memorial Wall at 9:00am. Later, at 10:30am, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Berkeley Fire Chief Debra Pryor will speak at the remembrance ceremony which will take place at the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center on Tunnel Road and Caldecott Lane. At noon, a Family Preparedness Fair will be held at Lake Temescal, at 6500 Broadway. Fire trucks, kids’ activities and information booths are all on the agenda. Find information on the city of Berkeley website. … Continue reading »

Tagged , , , , ,

Best of Berkeleyside: This week’s most popular posts

Johnny Depp (above) and Tom Waits storm through Berkeley The Facebook “Likes” counter on this story ground to a halt when it hit 1,000, proving that even in Berkeley we are not immune to the fun of a little celebrity watching.

Quakes, and then more quakes A total of four earthquakes rattled Berkeley on Thursday, two of them relatively big ones. Thankfully, there were no reports of injuries or damage, but they served as a timely reminder that nature has the upper hand, and that preparation is key.

Andronico’s to shutter University Avenue store After our report that the Berkeley-founded grocery chain was to be bought out of bankruptcy, it was perhaps not surprising that consolidation would follow. However, readers expressed concern about the fate of the store’s employees.

How can downtown Berkeley be improved? Berkeleyside readers have no shortage of opinions on how the heart of our city could be made more inviting. There is still time to have your say by completing the Downtown Berkeley Association survey.

Firestorm Special We ended the week with the last in our series of articles to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm. We published a total of 11 stories, including an interview with Berkeley Fire Chief Debra Pryor, the story of how the fire inspired the creation of The Sims, and tips on emergency preparedness. But most of our coverage was in the form of contributions from Berkeleyside readers. See the full series here.

We hear many different reasons why people read Berkeleyside: to keep up with the news, to marvel at the work of the extraordinary photographers who contribute to the site, to enter the fray of the comments. If you value Berkeleyside, please donate or subscribe. Your support will help us continue to improve our coverage of Berkeley. 

Print Friendly

Get prepared for an emergency: Here’s how

Oakland hills1
Print Friendly

Twenty years after the Oakland-Berkeley fire ripped through the East Bay hills, killing 25 people and destroying close to 4,000 houses and apartments, houses have been rebuilt, trees and shrubs have grown back, and life has seemingly returned to normal.

But the threat of fire — as well as earthquakes, as was witnessed yesterday — remains constant.

The city of Berkeley has taken many steps since the catastrophe to help prevent, or deal with, another one. Some of those include vegetation abatement, changes to building codes, firefighter training and equipment. Read the full list of measures compiled by Berkeley. “Much of this would not have been possible without resident and voter support, and these investments are a real testament to our community,” says City of Berkeley spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross.

To remind people of the likelihood of future disasters and to show them how to prepare and survive, local cities and officials are planning a day of workshops and fairs in the East Bay this weekend:

  • Saturday, 9am: The cities of Berkeley and Oakland will hold a firestorm remembrance starting with a 9 am reflection at the Rockridge BART station Firestorm Tile Wall.
  • Saturday, 10:30am: At 10:30 am, there will be a formal Commemorative Ceremony of Remembrance at the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center at Tunnel Road and Caldecott Way. Mayor Tom Bates and Fire Chief Debra Pryor will speak. … Continue reading »
Tagged , , ,

Loss assessment: Building anew after devastation

Photo: Allen Geller
Print Friendly

By Kurt Lavenson

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Rainer Maria Rilke

The fire missed me that day. I was alone in my fiancée’s kitchen, up near the ridge line of the hills, drinking coffee and reading the Sunday paper. The heat and winds were unusual. Pine needles blew from the trees and whipped sideways past the windows. I noticed smoke in the distance, in a corner of the view to the north, comfortably far away and just mildly interesting.

But it didn’t stay that way for long. Soon I was packing family photos and boxes of files into my truck for an evacuation. When we returned hesitantly the next day, the house and neighborhood were fine. The winds had stopped before pushing the fire into our canyon — and that was all it took to separate us from the others. A mile or so north, there were 1,500 acres of blackened devastation. … Continue reading »

Tagged ,

Twenty years after a catastrophe, recollections — Part 3

Screen shot 2011-10-19 at 1.24.14 PM
Print Friendly

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

[A slideshow that was published earlier today in this story has been temporarily removed as we try to deal with some technical hitches. Apologies to our readers for any inconvenience.]


By Peter Jenny: In 1991, I was living on 45th street in North Oakland, between Broadway and Telegraph. My neighbor and I were going to have a yard sale October 20th, and I went out early to put up signs. I remember the weather being oddly very hot for 7 a.m. in the morning. … Continue reading »

Tagged ,

Twenty years after a catastrophe, recollections — Part 2

Print Friendly

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 … Continue reading »

Tagged ,

Inspired to make The Sims after losing a home

Will Wright
Print Friendly

Will Wright’s home was one of the first to burn in the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm. His quick thinking in fleeing without delay probably saved his life, and that of his first wife and immediate neighbors whom he took with him. The experience also had another consequence: it inspired him to create what became the best-selling personal computer game in history.

Wright, one of the world’s leading video game designers, sprang to prominence when his company, Maxis, launched Sim City in 1989. Maxis was sold to Electronic Arts in 1997. Wright’s new company, Stupid Fun Club, was formed two years ago and is based in West Berkeley.

The process of assessing his losses and material needs after his home burned down set Wright to thinking about the value of possessions and the promise they hold of fulfillment. Having always been passionate about architecture, he began to develop an idea for a game where players would simulate daily activities in a suburban household, including building a home from scratch: The Sims was born.

Wright’s home was on a ridge on Norfolk Road, very close to the site of the incompletely extinguished grass fire that is believed to have sparked the catastrophic fire that swept through the hills on October 20.

Wright remembers waking up that morning and smelling smoke. … Continue reading »

Tagged , , , ,

Fire Chief Debra Pryor: It’s important not to forget

Chief Debra Pryor: "There were a lot of lessons learned"
Print Friendly

In October 1991, Debra Pryor was a newly promoted Lieutenant in the Berkeley Fire Department. She spent the morning of October 20 in the South Bay with her mother, but when she returned to Berkeley, she picked up an assignment to relieve a fire crew in Roble Road that had been struggling with the firestorm.

“There was still a lot of chaos,” she recalls. “There was an awful lot of fire. There was an awful lot of damage. Lives had been lost. It was unsettling.

“My grandmother used to clean a house on Roble Court. That house wasn’t damaged. But coming on a street that the day before had been ordinary — you could see the chimneys. It looked like tombstones where the houses had been.” … Continue reading »

Tagged , , , ,