The Oakland-Berkeley hills in the aftermath of the 1991 fire. Photo copyright Richard Misrach

For residents of Berkeley’s Claremont Canyon, early fall is fire season.

Many in the neighborhood survived the Oakland-Berkeley firestorm of 1991, and say they can’t help but be on high alert each time its anniversary rolls around.

“We, like a lot of people, kind of dread October,” said one resident, who asked not to be named. “A lot of people have a low level of dread until it starts raining.”

Now, as deadly fires rage through wine country and smoke blankets the whole Bay Area, memories from that fall have come flooding back.

On the day the fires began in 1991, the Claremont Canyon resident was at a friend’s house in Marin with her husband. They turned on the radio and heard that areas close to their neighborhood were in flames.

They jumped in the car, where she began making a list of items to grab from the house if they had to evacuate. Her husband told her she was overreacting.

Thankfully, he was right. But her brother and parents were not so fortunate. They were among those who lost their homes in the fire that wiped out 1,500 acres of hills, killed 25 people and decimated 3,280 homes and apartments. More than 25 years later, survivors told Berkeleyside, it is still haunting to hear helicopters flying overhead and eerie to look up at the hills while driving through the Caldecott Tunnel.

“I can tell you that there’s never a time when the day is warm and the wind is blowing in October that my husband and I don’t say, ‘I hope this stops.’ Those kinds of things don’t go away,” said Lora Thielbar, who lost her home to the fire in 1991.

That trauma is all the more visceral this week. In the North Bay, whole neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble and entire cities forced to evacuate. At 31, the death toll from those fires has now outpaced the East Bay firestorm count, and hundreds of people in Sonoma, Mendocino, Yuba and Napa counties are missing. The scariest part is no one knows how long it will take to put the fires out.

“My heart just bleeds for them. It’s going to be such a hard time,” Thielbar said.

On Oct. 19, 1991, Thielbar and her husband Robert Unger were at their home on Mountain Boulevard in Oakland, close to Highway 24, when they spotted the fire in the distance.

It seemed like they were safe — until the blaze leaped over the highway.

Devastation in Santa Rosa after the Tubbs fire destroyed at least 2,000 structures. Photo: Berkeley Police

“As we drove off, the hillside behind us was in flames,” Thielbar said. “There was no question our house was going to burn.”

The house was one the couple had lived in since the 1970s, and one in which they were raising three children. Each member of the family grieved in his or her own way. At first, Thielbar was “a basket case,” while it hit hardest for Unger a year later, she said. Their 7-year-old son was fine, but his teenage sister, who lost a diary she had kept for years and the letters from summer camp she had plastered on her bedrooms walls, had a tougher time.

They considered moving, but “everybody was looking.”

On Facebook, Katherine Diane Adcock, who also lost her home in the 1991 blaze, wrote that she recalled landlords raising rents in the aftermath. The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week on concerns about a similar outcome in Santa Rosa, where the housing supply was already scarce before at least 2,000 buildings burned down. Voters defeated a controversial rent control measure in the city last summer.

In 1991, Thielbar and Unger’s synagogue, Temple Sinai, set up a buddy system, pairing fire survivors with other temple members. Their buddy helped them find an apartment to rent in Orinda while they rebuilt. The couple refused to let people buy them things, but accepted extra household items.

“You have odds and ends of towels that don’t match but you haven’t gotten rid of,” Thielbar said. “People gave us stuff, and that’s what we used for two years. It made all the difference in the world.” This week, she asked her rabbi to call up a rabbi in Santa Rosa to share lessons learned from the recovery effort in the East Bay. (See a list of places to donate items to the North Bay relief effort.)

Even with the help, rebuilding their home while raising kids and working — both were lawyers — was no easy task. Unger quit his job for two years. Together, they embarked on the arduous task of documenting every single item they owned, for insurance claims.

“You had to put down on lists how many feet of wire you had in your house. How many pairs of underpants you owned. The only time I ever had nightmares were when I finished working on the lists for insurance,” and tax deductions, Thielbar said.

They eventually abandoned the practice: “We didn’t have the emotional wherewithal” to painstakingly recall every sentimental and useful object that had been destroyed, she said.

The remains of a play structure stand in the aftermath of the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa. Photo: Daniel McPartlan

Sharing insights for North Bay victims

One saving grace was a sense of camaraderie that developed among the survivors. They banded together in neighborhood groups. This allowed some to bargain for better rates for aspects of reconstruction. Stores gave discounts to those who had lost everything. The broader Bay Area poured out support for those who were affected by the fire.

Most helpfully, victims formed groups based on their insurance providers.

“That was an incredibly important and powerful thing to do,” said Thielbar. The insurance companies could not get away with telling one customer one thing, and another something else, although they tried. Unger was the head of their group, which ended up earning coverage for four households that were not initially guaranteed replacement for everything they lost.

Thielbar hopes the survivors in the North Bay will replicate the effort, though she knows many will not be able to participate.

“Renters may not have insurance, and I don’t know what those people are going to do,” she said.

The cities affected in wine country could also take a page out of Oakland’s book, Thielbar said. In the aftermath of the firestorm the city set up a hub in an old grocery store, where victims could find, in one place, booths with all the different resources they needed. She also praised the regulations instated to ensure homes were rebuilt safely and environmentally.

Others spoke about the systemic issues that exacerbated the firestorm. Notoriously, many fire hoses from mutual aid departments turned out to be incompatible with Berkeley and Oakland hydrants. Now, most, if not all, cities have switched to a common system. Various police agencies also were unable to communicate with one another because they used different systems. That, too, has largely been remedied.

Other survivors experienced headaches during the cities’ rebuilding efforts that continued to ail them later.

When new sewer lines were put in around Jacqueline Dever’s rebuilt house on Taurus Avenue in Oakland, they were done in a “slapdash” fashion, she said. Ten years later there was a sewage leak and it turned out to be the city’s fault.

Dever’s father was living in the house, where she grew up, in 1991, but was luckily out of town with his pets when the property was engulfed in flames. The tragedy prompted him to move out of state, but Dever stayed to rebuild the home where she would live with her daughter for many years.

Though their home was done in a couple years, for many of her neighbors the ordeal of rebuilding lasted much longer.

“We were constantly getting nails in our tires” from the construction projects,” Dever said. She was surprised one day to see a neighbor had “pulled over and was sobbing over it. I guess it’s the little things that finally get to you.”

The 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm devastated 1,500 acres in the hills. Photo: Cal OES

PTSD is appropriate, preparedness key

Adcock too recalled feeling a rush of emotion during a seemingly mundane moment.

“I remember walking into a store to buy socks for my daughter,” she wrote. “Wondering what color should I buy? I fell down and cried because we had nothing. She needed everything. Too overwhelming… Trying to make my little kid feel safe while I was falling apart.”

She and others said “PTSD is appropriate” to describe the state they are in this week, smelling the smoke, hearing the horrific news from the North Bay and, for many, worrying about their loved ones there.

Dever, like other survivors, has become much more vigilant about disaster preparedness. She has that earthquake kit many people in Berkeley have been “meaning to put together” for years. Once, her husband, whom she had not yet met in 1991, asked if Dever knew what she would take with her from the house if there was another fire.

“I said, ‘Of course!'” she replied, emphatically.

Some victims said they wished they had made copies of family photographs and important papers and stored them elsewhere, or made sure to grab them when evacuating.

“I’m very cognizant of the fact that I don’t have photos of my mom as a child,” said Berkeley resident Leila Zahedi. Some of her family members lost their home, and along with it sentimental pictures and keepsakes, in the firestorm. “There are things like wedding dresses and souvenirs that can’t be replaced with insurance,” she said.

Dever’s message to North Bay survivors is this: “It’ll affect you to some degree for the rest of your life, but you will move on.”

In the days after the 1991 firestorm, Dever went back to the site where her childhood home once stood and rescued a few warped items from the charred mess. She picked up a coffee mug with glass melted into it.

“I keep it on display,” she said. “It’s a reminder that things change. It took on a different shape but it’s still there.”

See complete coverage on Berkeleyside of the recent wildfires, along with resources for how to help, air quality updates, a map of what’s burning and the latest status on each fire, and a photo essay.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...