The Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm incinerated my house 30 years ago

When Gary and I moved from Ithaca, New York, back to the Bay Area in 1990 and looked for a house, the threat of fire never crossed my mind.

People standing in front of scorched car after the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland firestorm
Frances Dinkelspiel and Gary Wayne standing in front of their home, October 1991. Credit: Frances Dinkelspel

As smoke swirled above me and blotted out the October sun and sirens filled the air, I lay flat on my back on Ashby Avenue near College, my hands pressing down on my lower stomach. I had just discovered two days earlier that I was pregnant with my first child, and I was so overcome with nausea that I couldn’t stay standing.

I didn’t know where my husband was. We had raced back from San Francisco as soon as we had seen the huge plume of smoke billowing above the East Bay hills, desperate to reach our house and our cat. We couldn’t get anywhere close. After we parked on Ashby, Gary told me he was going to try and reach our home on Alvarado Road, more than 2 miles away, on foot if necessary. The thought of leaving our cat Mookie Wilson Wayne to die on his own was too painful to consider.

“Don’t die,” I said as I squeezed his arm hard. “Remember we have a child to think of.”

Even as the words left my mouth, I thought of how strange it was to say that. There was no longer just two to think about.

No one else knew I was pregnant. Gary and I had been eating brunch at Zuni Café in San Francisco with both sets of our parents when the Oakland-Berkeley hills fire exploded around 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20, 1991, the flames fanned by the 89-degree temperature and Diablo winds of 35 miles an hour. Gary’s parents were visiting from New Jersey, but we kept mum about the pregnancy because it was so new.

After we finished eating and stepped out onto Market Street, we could see a tower of dark smoke in the distance filling the sky.

No way to fight the flames

Just a day before, we had witnessed a similar scene. Gary, his parents, and I had been touring Sausalito when we spotted smoke in the East Bay hills.

I was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News at the time and ever-curious, and after we returned home from Sausalito, I drove up to where fire crews were mopping up the Saturday grass fire. The spot on Buckingham Boulevard was about a mile from our house on the Berkeley/Oakland border. I spoke with an Oakland fire official who told me he thought the fire had begun in a hidden encampment in the hills. He assured me that everything was under control.

When Gary and I moved from Ithaca, New York, back to the Bay Area in 1990 and looked for a house, the threat of fire never crossed my mind. As a California native, I was more worried about earthquakes than flames racing down hillsides. The Loma Prieta earthquake had struck in 1989, just two years earlier, pancaking the Cypress Freeway and many apartment buildings in the San Francisco Marina. So, we looked for a newer house with a good foundation. I never even thought about the fact the house was in the Berkeley/Oakland hills surrounded by brush and trees. I had never even heard of the devastating 1923 Berkeley fire or the 1970 Fish Ranch Road fire. The term wildland-urban interface was completely unknown to me.

But on Sunday, as we stood in shock on Market Street and peered across the horizon toward the East Bay, the cloud of smoke was so much larger than the smoke cloud we saw on Saturday that I knew the disaster at hand was not the earth shaking but the hills burning. We left Gary’s parents in the city and rushed toward home.

I don’t know how long I spent alone on Ashby Avenue. Time seemed warped, both speeded up and slowed down. I remember almost bursting into tears when I saw a number of lime green fire engines from Fremont turn from College Avenue east onto Ashby heading up into the hills. I cheered, so grateful that fire departments around the bay were trying to help. I remember that chunks of ash and cinder rained down around me and cars turned on their headlights even though it was midday. Every once in a while I heard a loud explosion, which I later learned were transformers blowing up. At one point I found a payphone and called one of my brothers to tell him my house was probably going to burn down. “It is not!” he declared, so sure of that impossibility. Who knew in 1991 that houses burning in massive wildfires would one day be a regular occurrence?

Around 3 p.m., Gary finally returned, wheeling a decrepit bike I had never seen. His face was darkened with soot and his T-shirt was soaked with sweat. “I couldn’t get up to the house,” he said, his face contorted with sadness. He told me he had borrowed the bike from a friend and had made it to the base of our hill when he encountered fire trucks coming down the hill. “Where do you think you are going?” a fire official said to him. “Turn back. It’s so hot up there that we can’t even bear it and we are wearing fire gear.”

At that point, houses were erupting into flames once every 11 seconds. Eventually, more than 3,500 structures would burn. The water tank on Amito Avenue near our home was empty, just like most of the 11 reservoirs in the hills. The electricity had given out, disabling the pumps that lifted water into the hills. The East Bay Municipal Utility District had not yet installed emergency backup power for pumps despite the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel that analyzed the Loma Prieta earthquake. There was no way to fight the flames, the firefighter told my husband.

As Gary told me his story, I knew I had to leave Berkeley. I was empty, shell-shocked and scared, still incredulous this disaster was unfolding. There was nothing I could do, no step I could take to save our cat or our possessions. I took our car and went to my parents’ home in San Francisco. Gary decided to climb up the fire trail in Claremont Canyon to see if our house was still standing. He called me late in the afternoon. “I watched our house burn down,” he said, tears choking his voice. “It took about a minute. It’s all gone.”

charred remains of a house after the 1991 Berkeley-Oakland firestorm
Remnants of Frances Dinkelspiel’s house, October 1991. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

Three days later, Gary and I stood at the edge of the lot that once held our house. The entire area was a drab grey. Everything was covered in ash. There was no color anywhere. Heaps of rubble lined the curving roads leading to our home. Black burned trees stood where there once had been masses of green. The air was acrid. Our three-story gray shingled house was now just slabs of charred concrete, melted piping and appliances and remnants of our foundation. My Honda Accord had burned up and had slid down the hill, coming to an angled rest on its rims. The only thing that survived was our mailbox on a black metal post. It was almost untouched. Our house number was still visible in red on the side. 

The three previous days had been a blur. We had hastily said goodbye to Gary’s parents, who returned to New Jersey without any luggage because all their possessions had burned as well. We only had the clothes we were wearing at the time of the fire and a few extras that were in a gym bag in the trunk. We had no place to stay: my parents’ house was too small and by the time we started looking to rent somewhere in the East Bay almost everything available just days earlier had been snapped up. After all, 10,000 people had been displaced. Our insurance company finally approved the rental of a house whose owner had jacked up the rent to an exorbitant level to take advantage of the scarcity. That was the first of many kindnesses we experienced from our insurance company, unlike many other fire victims who had to fight for every penny.

In some ways, we felt lucky. We had survived and no one we knew had died. Twenty-five others were not as lucky. We hadn’t had to flee the flames, to run for our lives. And we were young and could recover. I was 31; Gary was 34. My pregnancy was a promise of a future, of better times to come.

Still, we were terribly sad. We had spent part of the previous three days scouring animal shelters in the hope that Mookie, our silver tabby, had been outside the house when the flames gobbled it up and had survived. When we couldn’t find him, contemplating his death was excruciating. We had outfitted him with an electronic cat collar that activated an electric cat door. The electricity had failed in the inferno, and I couldn’t stop picturing Mookie batting his head in vain against the cat door in a desperate attempt to flee the heat, smoke and flames. He had been such a beloved companion, running up the steps each evening to greet me as I returned home from work.

And we had lost everything, as had my brother and the friend living with us. A search through the ashes turned up a small ceramic vase and parts of a set of jade earrings, now scorched. I didn’t lament most of the stuff (I never had liked the couch I bought for the living room anyway) but there were items that were irreplaceable. I was saddest that I had lost all my correspondence with my father, who had died suddenly when I was 16. Ours had been a tenuous relationship at best. Now its physical remnants were gone, forever.

But in a strange way, there were benefits to having lost our home. The communities of Berkeley and Oakland rallied to help the fire victims, as we were called. Virtually every store offered us a 10% discount. A group of photographers offered to take family portraits of those who had lost their pictures in the flames. When people learned we had lost our home they offered kind words and expressed support. I felt supported. 

Deciding to rebuild

It only took a few days to decide that we wanted to rebuild. Gary felt it the most strongly, which surprised me. He said he didn’t want the fire to defeat him. He had to fight back, to return, to show his resilience.

I was less sure but acquiesced. But a strange malaise settled over me. I couldn’t care about anything. I found it hard to buy clothes to replace the ones I lost, even with my discount. I didn’t want to pick out new kitchen fixtures or worry about the best way to situate the house on the lot. We had to deal with our insurance company, find appraisers to help us recover what we were owed, and figure out how to protect our burned lot from erosion.

We had finally told our families about our pregnancy in late December once that critical three-month marker had passed. Of course, our parents were ecstatic, but it still seemed unreal to me that I would soon have a baby in my life when I couldn’t even cope well with my own life. Looking back after 30 years, it is clear I was depressed and traumatized by the fire even though I put up a tough front. We were so much luckier than others that I didn’t want to admit the inferno had affected me deeply.

Finally, nesting could wait no longer. A week before my daughter was due, I snapped out of my funk and did a flurry of shopping to prepare for her arrival. Baby clothes. Mommy clothes. Diapers. Toys. Fuzzy objects.

Charlotte arrived in late June 1992, eight months after I had lain flat on my back on Ashby Avenue, my hand pressing down on my lower stomach to suppress my nausea.

Four months later, one year to the day after the fire, we broke ground to build our new home.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.