This article is the first in a three-part series commemorating the centennial of the Berkeley fire of 1923. Part 2 explores the aftermath of the fire, including how it informed the city’s new water system. Part 3 focuses on how firefighting has changed in the last 100 years.
A century ago this Sunday, a hot, dry wind — the same northeasterly that can still imperil the city today — bore fire on its back over the northern Berkeley Hills, destroying in its wake nearly 600 residential buildings, causing nearly $10 million in damage and leaving nearly 4,000 residents and UC Berkeley students homeless.
Miraculously the fire claimed no lives in Berkeley, but scores were burned, bloodied or worse while running from or trying to fight the flames. For decades, until the lethal Tunnel Fire of 1991, it stood to many as the city’s worst natural disaster since its incorporation.
Huge fires spring up in the wildland east of the city every couple of decades or so. An East Bay Regional Parks District map of fire areas — many overlaying each other — shows large burns in and around Berkeley in 1905, 1923, 1937, 1946, 1970 and 1991. Advances in firefighting and detection have helped, but experts warn we are still at risk.
“I still think that the vulnerability is very high. It’s very high,” said UC Berkeley Professor Scott Stephens, who specializes in wildland fire science. “We can’t feel somehow that we fixed it, or somehow it’s not going to happen again.”
On Monday, Sept. 17, 1923, soaring temperatures, plunging humidity and gathering wind out of the north and east caused many fires to spring up around the Bay Area and in other parts of the state by the afternoon. Grain fields and timberland burned around Sacramento. Fires in Oakland leveled homes in the Leona Heights neighborhood and left several dead.
The fire that would burn through northeastern Berkeley began to the east of the city, at around 12:10 or 12:15 p.m., in an area of a trail alongside a power line on the east slope of the San Pablo Ridge, according to a report from state, federal and university forest experts.
News reports the day of the fire indicated a falling high-voltage wire was the likely culprit. That theory was eventually changed to include the possibility of a discarded segment of burning tobacco.
“Fire spread not only by contiguity but by leaps of a block, two blocks, eight blocks,” the Oakland Tribune reported at the time. “With almost the rapidity of lightning it roared down the Berkeley hill slopes, setting fire within five minutes to residences in the neighborhood of [Tamalpais], Tallac and Shasta roads.”
The Tribune also reported that wind carried the flames south along the face of the ridge, “leaving untouched beside it the Codornices Club and the neighboring districts through Cragmont, Northbrae properties and Thousand Oaks.”
The stock of fire fuel around the East Bay hills changed once Europeans began moving in. The Indigenous communities, including the Ohlone, had used fire as a strategy for vegetation management. The end of regular intentional burns and the introduction of new tree species turned the once grassy hills into plant communities that were “less native, more dense and unnatural, and more flammable,” according to a parks district report on wildfire risk.
No warning as fire burned for hours
In an age with no internet, no automated cameras and no wildland smoke detectors, no Berkeley firefighters knew the blaze was on its way until after 2 p.m., when a Hill Road resident telephoned to report a grass fire, The Berkeley Gazette reported in a 1973 story timed to the fire’s semi-centennial.
While the winter of 1923 had been dry, Berkeley had enjoyed typical late-summer weather for several weeks before the fire, with noontime temperatures ranging from 59 to 68 degrees and relative humidity a “normal” 84% to 100%, according to a later account in The Berkeley Gazette.
But from 9 p.m. to midnight on Sept. 16, the thermometer spiked from 62 to 84 degrees, with humidity plummeting from 94% to a paltry 25%. And hot, dry north and northeasterly winds kicked up during the day on Sept. 17, peaking at 33 mph, according to The Berkeley Gazette.
In contrast to the slower, cool, damp wind that typically blows on Berkeley from the San Francisco Bay, the northeasterly winds from inland, now known as Diablo Winds, rapidly dry out vegetation, turning the wildland into a tinderbox.
James Kenney, who ran the then-volunteer Berkeley Fire Department from 1896 to 1904, and the newly professionalized department from 1904 until 1916, famously said that he never slept when the north winds blew, and fretted over just the sort of fire that struck in 1923.
These days, the Berkeley Fire Department has a term for this combination of factors: Extreme fire weather.
The Berkeley Fire Department employed 78 firefighters in 1923, compared to the roughly 120 firefighting personnel they are budgeted for today.
Although those 78 firefighters were broken into two shifts, Chief G. Sydney Rose had already called them all into their stations on Sept. 17 since smaller, controllable fires had already sprung up around Berkeley. So it took less than a half-hour for the entire department to mobilize and — augmented by hundreds of residents and students with hoses and buckets — to begin fighting flames that, despite their best efforts, would eventually consume 130 acres.
Berkeley pleaded for aid from neighboring cities. Oakland’s firefighters were dealing with fires in their own city but sent men and equipment that would stay in Berkeley through the night. Alameda, Emeryville, Hayward, Piedmont and Richmond all sent help as well.
The San Francisco Fire Department sent 200 men by ferry, who set to work near the northwestern corner of the UC Berkeley campus to hold the fire line away from the downtown business district, Linda P. Rosen wrote in Tempered by Fire: History of the Berkeley Fire Department.
By 4:40 p.m. several buildings in and around downtown had begun to catch fire, including the Odd Fellows building — then located at Shattuck Avenue and Addison Street — and the six-story hotel next door, but firefighters were able to douse those flames before they could spread and consume the entire commercial district.
Three homes on Berkeley Way ignited, as did one at Oxford Street and University Avenue, but that was as far as the fire crept into downtown. The “impenetrable acreage” of the university campus was largely unaffected, though student and faculty homes and fraternity and sorority houses on the northern side fell to the flames, according to the Oakland Tribune.
As winds shifted, though, with damp air returning from the Bay, the fire began to wane and firefighters gained the advantage. By 5 p.m. firefighters were gaining control of the blaze, though individual fires continued through the night, and gutted houses smoldered under the rubble of what had once been upper floors.
With fire out, Guardsmen ordered to shoot looters on sight
By the time night fell, the fire was well in hand, but the burned area was chaotic.
The Pacific Gas and Electric Co. sent workers to seal gas mains. The Berkeley Police Department, reinforced by their colleagues from Oakland as well as UC Berkeley Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets, the National Guard and deputized citizens, moved into the burned area to keep watch. Guardsmen were ordered to shoot looters on sight.
Reports of looting were limited, but two days after the fire, police did shoot at two men near burned-out homes on Arch Street and later discovered a safe they believed the men had tried to open, according to the Oakland Tribune. In the early hours of Sept. 18, police nabbed four men roaming the burned area, but the men were able to convince the officers that they were merely curious and not looting, Police took them for fingerprinting and released them.
The university and the Berkeley Police Department set up lost-and-found bureaus. The American Red Cross began giving out meals to hungry refugees at the Berkeley High School cafeteria. Police asked displaced residents to register with them in order to make it easier to reconnect with loved ones and belongings.
Nightfall brought thousands of sightseers to the burned-out hillside.
“Thousands of persons from the (East Bay) and San Francisco took to the hills back of Cragmont last night to look down upon a scene of desolate beauty,” The Oakland Tribune reported on Sept. 18. “A continuous line of automobile lights moved on the horizon line.”
On Sept. 18, a Tuesday, city police began issuing passes through military clerks to residents who could demonstrate they had legitimate business in the fire zone.
Around the state, fires continued to burn. In and around San Andreas, hundreds of campers on vacation were pressed into service to combat fire in the timberland, farmland and hills. Outside Inskip, 6 square miles of pine timber were burned bare. Thousands of acres of grassland burned around Martinez. Hundreds of homes in Marin County burned to the ground after a fire swept down from Ignacio.
Local residents shared many anecdotal accounts with the Oakland Tribune of firefighters and volunteers dying heroically. But Berkeley police officers and Deputy Coroner Frank Berg searched the burned area and found none dead. By Sept. 22 the last remaining report of a possible fatality had been supplanted by a tale of escape.
Three days after the fire, the more than 300 soldiers, sailors and guardsmen who had entered Berkeley to safeguard the burned area had returned to their billets out of town and the ROTC cadets had gone back to class.
Plainclothes police officers from Oakland and 25 officers from San Francisco stayed on to supplement the Berkeley Police Department’s patrols after the military pulled out.
Not enough water, more than enough blame
As the fire raged, there was a shortage of water throughout the burned areas. Residents turning on household hoses to wet their homes recalled little to no water coming out.
“The subsidence of the wind at a critical time saved us from a more appalling disaster, but perhaps a proper water supply would have prevented this present great loss,” then-Berkeley Mayor Frank D. Stringham said once the fire was out.
Berkeley city officials laid at least some blame for the extent of the damage at the feet of the East Bay Water Company for refusing to install larger mains around the city. The water company in turn said they could not have bulked up the city’s water system without an investment from the city or ratepayers.
In any case, fire officials and historians tend to agree that the only thing that stopped the fire from spreading further was the shift in the wind, with the hot, dry air from the north and east giving way to cool air coming in off the San Francisco Bay.
Part 2 explores how the city changed in the wake of the fire, from water system upgrades to local politics and commercial maneuvering.
Part 3 delves into how firefighting in Berkeley and beyond has changed in the last century, and what lessons were learned — and perhaps not learned yet — from this fire and others.