Do You Remember The Oakland Firestorm?

An East Bay woman's recollection of the brutal wildfire 21 years ago that set the set the Oakland hills ablaze, bringing death and devastation.


Every year, this week, my thoughts turn to where I was October 20, 1991 the day of the Oakland Firestorm.

If you lived anywhere in the Bay Area at the time then you likely have that day etched in your memory, as well. 

For those of us who lived in the Oakland and Berkeley hills and just below, it was a defining moment in our lives. Even if you did not lose your own home you likely knew a friend or neighbor who did. You may have known someone who died in the fire or lost family members.  Those of us who were left behind to rebuild stand witness to the devastation of that day and its aftermath much as I imagine New Yorkers remember 9/11.

The day of the firestorm was to be an especially enjoyable one for us.  My husband and I were celebrating a belated anniversary that day by going to eat at an outdoor cafe on College Avenue on the Oakland/Berkeley border.

We had left our one year-old son and eight-year-old daughter in the care of a responsible teenage babysitter and drove down the windy roads from our home near the top of Oakland’s Montclair district.  I remember remarking to my husband how dry the air felt and predicted it would be a scorcher that day.

Midway through our meal we spotted smoke up in the Berkeley hills, above the Caldecott Tunnel. We didn’t think much of it, assuming it was a grass fire of some sort that would soon be extinguished. After finishing our meal we walked around a bit and returned to our car to head home.

By then, however, the fire had started to spread and traffic on Highway 880 heading South was backing up.  Soon we could see flames and smoke pouring off the hillside. It was obvious to us that we were not going to get home to our children continuing the route we were on.

We somehow got off the freeway, turned around and headed towards Richmond, took San Pablo Dam Road through El Sobrante,  headed through Moraga and took a two lane windy road  over the backside of the Oakland hills and made it back to our neighborhood.

As we pulled into our driveway we could see smoke and flames lapping ever closer. The fire seemed far enough away that we did not feel in immediate danger, but given how fast the fire had spread already there was no telling when our chance of escape might be cut off. Our babysitter’s father was at our home loading our kids and pets into his car and putting water on our roof with a hose.

We dashed inside long enough to retrieve the family photo albums, our computer hard drive and a box with important papers. Nothing, and I mean nothing, else besides our children, pets and those few things seemed worth taking in that moment.  Quickly we loaded two kids, two basset hounds and a cage with two parakeets into the car with us and sped down the hill. Some of our neighbors fled with us. Others stayed behind saying we were overreacting.  In hindsight, I am glad we left when we did because the neighborhood soon became filled with smoke making it hard to see anything or breathe.

For the next 24 hours we were glued to the television news camped out in the living room of our friends’ home in Dublin.  There were conflicting reports and we didn’t know if our neighborhood was incinerated or not. Newscasters kept mentioning the street immediately below our home being on fire. (Later we learned that was an erroneous report, but we feared the worst.) 

When we finally ventured back home, smoke still hung heavy in the air.  Our neighborhood was thankfully spared, but a large swath of our community looked like a moonscape and a final count would ultimately reveal we personally knew 45 households that had lost their homes and all of their posessions.

I became involved in several organizations in the days immediately after the fire. In addition to serving along with others as a reporter (getting the word out in our neighborhood and in the local papers about the state of the damage and prospect for recovery), I also served as a community liaison, of sorts, with the national media that descended on our community in droves.

Later I helped owners reconnect with their pets and assisted with clothing collection and distribution for those who literally fled the fire with just what was on their back.

As in other natural disasters, people rose to the occasion and it felt good for those first few months afterwards to know the eyes of the world were upon us hoping and praying for our community’s recovery. People were resilient, insurance companies paid up, houses were rebuilt and lives moved on.

But, things were changed in marked ways after the firestorm. All of us who had been there were made different by it. Even newcomers who moved in afterwards couldn't help but be touched by it - even if remotely.

For some years after the fire I continued to put all of our photo albums in the trunk of my car whenever fire danger was high, lest I be away from home when a fire should break out. We never left our children with anyone who didn’t drive a car after that and in large ways and small we adjusted our lives differently. Goat herds were brought in to graze and keep weeds down in our neighborhood. We cut a 30 foot safety barrier around our property. Even the smell of someone having a barbecue in their backyard or burning wood in their fireplace would trigger memories for us.

We left that neighborhood in 1996 to live in the flatlands elsewhere.  By then we had three children and high fire danger in our neighborhood of steep narrow roads factored into our consideration to move. I seldom venture to our old neighborhood today and most of our friends burned out moved elsewhere or we’ve lost touch with them 21 years later.

Still, when a certain dry wind kicks up some afternoons, I find myself looking towards those brown hillsides and remembering the day that changed the lives of so many of us in the Bay Area. I think about those who died and those who very narrowly escaped alive.  I was but a mere bystander to it all.

But, I will remember it forever, as if it were yesterday.

Patch contributing editor Carol Parker of Alameda was a news and feature reporter for the Daily Review and has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Examiner and other publications.

Cynthia Carter Cameron October 21, 2012 at 04:50 PM
I was a student while working in a small boutique on Chestnut Street across the bay in San Francisco. A friend and I had stepped outside on our break and were having a conversation when I looked up and what looked like large pieces of burnt paper were floating by overhead. I told my friend there was a very bad fire somewhere. Later we turned on the news and found out the Oakland hills were on fire. One of my instructors lost his home and belongings but somehow the fire had not touched his truck that was parked in front of his home. Hard to believe those burnt pieces of paper had blown clear across the bay!
Toni Mayer October 21, 2012 at 10:35 PM
Excellent article, Carol. My husband and I were on our way to Berkeley Rep from our home in El Cerrito that Sunday afternoon. I remember the heat of the day and the wind blowing from the east. There was some smoke, but we went to the theatre. When the play was over we emerged to smoky skies but still didn't have an idea of the extent of the fire until we got home and turned on the TV. My mother, in her early 70s at the time, had lived in Hiller Highlands a few years prior to the fire. Had she still been living there she might have been lost. The house she had lived in burned.
Adam Henry October 22, 2012 at 02:03 AM
I was in Rodeo with my girlfriend of the time, and we could see the smoke plume over the hills. Being stupid teenagers we decided to hop in the car and go rubberneck. We wound up at the mathematics building just above the Lawrence Hall of Science. Looking across the valley we saw the flames come shooting down the hill through the trees and we decided we had seen enough and made the wisest decision we had made all day. We left. Later in the evening we found ourselves driving up Ashby Avenue from Interstate 80 and we could see the hill aglow with embers where there used to be houses. It was over twenty years ago, but just like the earthquake it still sticks in my mind as if it were yesterday.


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