Tag Archives: Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm

Obituaries

Connie Carlson, seeker of ideas and experiences

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By Carla Petievich

Connie Carlson, a long-time resident of Berkeley, passed away on April 24, 2014, at the Chaparral House on Allston Way in Berkeley. She was 96.

Connie added flair, energy and surprise to any occasion she attended, and extracted as much as possible from life. She held ideas and experience in higher regard than the comforts of a conventional place in society; everyone who knew her would certainly attest to the confidence of her convictions and her complete disregard for convention.

Connie was born in Tacoma, WA to Carl Martin Carlson (1884-1971) and Rae Lillian Rothstein (1887-1950). When Connie was still a small child, the family (including her younger sister, Zaida, 1923-2012) moved to Ketchikan, Alaska, where Connie’s parents practiced optometry, making eyeglasses for the townspeople and inhabitants of the nearby Tlingit reservations.

Connie’s spirit of adventure and her desire to escape her parents’ chaotic marriage drove her to leave home at the age of 15; she made her way from Ketchikan to “the States” by steamer. She worked her way through high school as an au pair for a Tacoma family and even managed to save enough to proceed onward to California, eventually landing in San Francisco. … Continue reading »

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Reminder: Share your Firestorm memories at BAM

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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 »

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Get prepared for an emergency: Here’s how

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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 »
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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 »

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Loss assessment: Building anew after devastation

Photo: Allen Geller
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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 »

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Twenty years after a catastrophe, recollections — Part 3

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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.]

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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 »

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Twenty years after a catastrophe, recollections — Part 2

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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 »

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Inspired to make The Sims after losing a home

Will Wright
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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 »

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

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

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With elegy book, community becomes part of exhibition

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Speaking about his new exhibition of photographs which opened simultaneously at the Berkeley Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California this week, Richard Misrach says it is as much a community event as an art show.

The haunting images, taken 20 years ago in the wake of the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm, document the aftermath of a disaster that touched everyone who lived or worked locally. And, now, because the photographs have never been shown before, people who lost homes — or perhaps even family members — are seeing these large scale, beautifully composed images for the first time. The impact is bound to be strong and responses are likely to be emotional.

Misrach knew he wanted to create a way for community members to articulate their reaction to the photographs and contribute to the exhibition directly. So he decided to create two handcrafted elegy books, one for each museum. Exhibition goers are encouraged to write in the books — or include photos or drawings — and the tomes will become part of the museums’ exhibition archives.

The design of the books fell to Brian Scott of San Francisco’s Boon Design, who worked with Misrach 20 years ago on his book, Bravo 20, and Berkeley bookbinder John DeMerritt. Scott and DeMerritt share a love of ledgers — the type that banks or courthouses would use in the past, or that hotels still sometimes have on display as guest books. … Continue reading »

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20 years after a catastrophe, recollections, Part One

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

By Valenta de Regil: October 19th, 1991 — A Saturday, hot like the weeks prior, I was working to make a more full work week out of one that’d had short days due to the extreme heat, painting at a beautiful house on one of the lower hairpin curves on Alvarado Road. A modern sleek house, with a large interior wall I had painted in a lovely wash of sweet and spicy red tones the previous month. My architect client was throwing a fiesta that evening and encouraged me to stay, which was sorely tempting.

As I drove away that afternoon, leaving my tools and job-book behind, I felt something pushing me out of the neighborhood. It was a game day and, with the heat, there was an oppressive vibe around Tunnel Road and Claremont Avenue… lots of cars and people, traffic and blockage.

I hadn’t stayed due to a birthday celebration at the Edinburgh Castle in San Francisco, and a night of drinking and eating fish and chips, but after a week of heat and more than average thirst, the morning was a haze of pain. There were two attempts to wake me by a dear friend, but I wasn’t able to take in the information. The second try included the phrase, “Your friends’ house is burning down, right now!” I was far away across the bay in Marin, and with my severe headache, there was only grey in my visual of the day. I watched flames on a small TV screen, and cried. All I remember of the day is a blackish grey color. Ash.

The top of Alvarado had been the locale of a lovely mid-century classic in which I had created my first decorative finishes a few years earlier. Midway down the street was a house which contained sculpture and various belongings, and a history of a long string of friends who had resided there. It was the first place I was able to gain access to after the fire. All I found was ash and melted glass, a Stonehenge sculpture vaporized into gasses.=

I had once lived below that road in Claremont Canyon, and my personal history with the neighborhood was deeply engrained in my heart, which was sorely broken for all who had lost everything — far more than my colorful walls and some belongings. The sentimental beauty has returned, the hills revived with love, with people strong in desire to live there with respect to the past. … Continue reading »

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Looking for familiar landmarks, seeing what little was left

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By Risa Nye

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. … Continue reading »

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No warning, then a crisis: Outrunning the Firestorm

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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 »

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