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.
By Kate Harper: I was laughing with two friends in my kitchen table, next to a sunny window and suddenly everything went black, as if someone had turned off the sun like a it was a light switch.
My first thought was of the 1950s sci fi movies I’d seen as a kid where out of blue something happens to planet earth in the middle of the day. We all ran outside and jumped in the car, drove to the highest hill to see what was happening. We parked and got out and then we saw the fire.
In the evening we came back home, but the news was still reporting the fire was out of control, and it was hard to go to sleep while we could see red blazing fire covering the hillside. We parked the car facing outwards in the driveway, just in case we had to evacuate in the middle of the night.
I had a friend who was evacuated and he kept phoning up his own house’s answering machine to see if it was still working. That was his way of learning if his house had burnt down.
After the fire was put out, I was forced to drive through the burnt areas in order get to my job location. It was difficult since I drove a scooter and I had to breath in that smell for miles. Even though the houses were missing, they left a sour smell behind of burnt rubber, plastic and wood. And that smell continued for months and months.
By Sue: When I first heard about the fire, my husband and I were driving down Highway 1, somewhere around Willits as I recall. We were supposed to be away for the weekend, and due to arrive in Bodega Bay to spend the night, when we heard the radio reports of this incredible fire. My in-laws were housesitting our two greyhounds at our house in West Berkeley, and at that point we were not sure whether to head home or not.
After listening to more radio reports, we just knew we could not relax and luxuriate in a nice hotel while we worried about our house, mostly where would my in-laws evacuate to with two dogs in the back of their sedan? It seemed like FOREVER to drive down Highway 1, and of course no cell phones, only radio to listen to and it seemed bad, very bad. We were wrecks.
By the time we got to the Richmond Bridge, it was dark and I will never forget being able to see the FLAMES from there. It was like a bad dream. When we got home, I think we all stayed up most of the night watching TV. Who could sleep with all that going on? The rest is just a blur now, I think I blanked a lot of the horror out of my memory. I do remember calling the hotel where we were supposed to stay explaining why we did not show up. They understood!
By Shutterbuggery: The morning of the fire I was driving on Grizzly Peak testing a new truck with my wife, headed south towards Fish Ranch Road. The wind was howling on the ridge and the road was completely covered with pine needles and eucalyptus leaves — the asphalt was invisible. The temperature was already warm and as we went around a final turn I said something about fire danger, too many pine needles, we need to head back.
Exactly at that moment the trees cleared and we both stared right at a HUGE column of fire, a truly gigantic plume, hundreds of feet high and unbelievably wide. It was a single column of superheated air and flame, blood red in the center, fading to orange and then black as the column shifted. The wind was howling as the wind on the ridge merged with the column of fire, creating its own updraft and sucking all the loose leaves, pine needles etc downward.
I slammed on the brakes, spun around and we went back north on Grizzly Peak, dropping down to lower ground in Berkeley where we stopped to watch in stunned silence at the pillar of flame and praying people were getting out. Hours later we were still there.
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. As part of its commemoration coverage, Berkeleyside will be publishing more recollections from readers. Read previous Firestorm Special stories.