Twenty years after a catastrophe, recollections — Part 3

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

  …………………………..

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 in the morning.

Later, during our sale, we were sitting in front of our houses with a clear view of the hills, and we started to see smoke. The plume of smoke coming from the hills grew in a way beyond comprehension, blanketing where we were. I turned on the radio in my truck, and we sat, watched the unbelievably huge plume of black smoke overhead and listened to the news and endless sirens.

An older man driving by stopped to talk, and said he lived on Brookside, off of Broadway in the Rockridge, and said his street was gone. We were beginning to get singed things dropping from the sky. A page from a dictionary, burned on one edge, blew through the open window of my truck and landed on the seat. A 3″ chunk of a spongy palm tree trunk, also singed, thudded nearby. Other papers landed high up in the screen of a skylight.


At one point we could hear muffled booms, which we thought were caused by gas leaks, but were later told were superheated homes exploding. Later in the day, people were routed down our street as an escape route, and it looked like something from France and the second world war: a line of cars packed with people, belongings and pets. At this point, I packed up my two cats and some papers to take to a friend’s in Kensington. Everything was so strange — the explosions, the smoke and heat, the sirens and the people leaving, I had visceral response, a panic.

We didn’t seem close to the fire, but who knew, and there was speculation that the fire could possibly burn to the edge of the bay.  Later, when I unpacked the duffle of papers, I found I had packed completely useless items, and I wondered about the people who were actually faced with approaching flames, trying to think rationally, faced with making life decisions fast.

  …………………………..

By Peter C.: Though the fire got out of control Sunday, October 20, the fire started the day prior. I was with 70K fans at Memorial Stadium on that date to see the Cal football team play the number one-ranked Washington Huskies. Cal had its first ranked football team in well over a decade, so there was an unusual amount of excitement in the stadium that day.

I remember seeing a plume of smoke south of the stadium that afternoon, and Joe Starkey may have even made a comment about it during the game broadcast. They put out the fire that afternoon, but not all of the embers were extinguished, and all hell broke loose the following day. At the time of the fire I was living in Walnut Creek. I remember driving back through the Caldecott Tunnel when it reopened and seeing the devastation for the first time. It felt post-apocalyptic, alien.

I still look up at the hills when I’m driving through the tunnel too see if I can spot signs of the transformation of the hills from the fire — new growth, new buildings, etc. Like the ’89 earthquake, these moments never really leave you.

  …………………………..

By Heather W.: I was at home on Valley Street, near Dwight Way. By the time we figured out what the smoke was from, it was quickly moving toward the bay — the whole sky went dark and ash was falling. Knowing very little about what was going on, the news could only report what was known at the moment, I packed bags for my 5 year old son and myself so we could flee the city should it become necessary.

I watched and listened to the news of the fire’s spread, and hoped that it could be kept under control. My best friend at the time and one of his other friends went to Hiller Highlands where another friend lived, to see if they could help. The best friend came back reeking of smoke and covered in soot. To this day, as I commute through the tunnel each day, I check the temperature and the wind factor and I always feel very anxious when the traffic backs up there.

 …………………………..

By Amcbuzz: At the time of the fire, I lived in San Rafael. That Sunday morning I was driving south on 101 to Mission St. Raphael. “Fog” was blowing high overhead — except it was coming from the east, which seemed weird. When I got to church, everyone was talking about a fire in the East Bay. Then I knew the “fog” was smoke. I was sickened at the thought of a fire huge enough to spread such an extended cloud.

In 1996 I moved to a new home in Claremont Knolls. Even after 20 years, I can see remnants of the destruction on our own property: portions of the old foundation in our home’s crawl space… partially buried charred tree stumps on the steep slope of our lot… flower bulbs still sprouting from the original owner’s garden.

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. Read previous Firestorm Special stories.