This article is the second in a three-part series commemorating the centennial of the Berkeley fire of 1923. Part 1 tells the story of the day of the fire and the days immediately after. Part 3 will focus on how firefighting has changed in the last 100 years.
A shift in wind, an earlier spark — the cost to the community of the Berkeley fire of 1923 could have been far higher for any number of reasons, according to forestry and fire experts who have said as much 100 years ago to the present day. Only a fortunate shift in the direction of the wind stopped the fire. The threat from hot, dry, northeasterly winds has only become more severe as the Bay Area and the planet have grown warmer.
But wind and weather were not the only contributing factors. In 1923, the narrow water mains in the northeastern Berkeley Hill neighborhoods, already headed for obsolescence, limited the amount of water that firefighters and residents could throw at the blaze, and were themselves a flashpoint of squabbling between city and utility officials, each blaming the other for a lack of expansion.
Wood-shingle home cladding, popular with homeowners at the time for its relatively low cost and a boon to the state’s timber industry, was another factor. It was a style that began to lose favor after the conflagration, although early progress in restricting new construction to less-flammable materials quickly reversed as the fire faded from parts of the public memory.
The firefighting community began making progress toward the mutual aid system in place today. At the time, it took communications from Berkeley’s city manager to bring in help from other fire departments. Today, fire agencies can communicate with each other instantaneously.
Lessons from catastrophe: Prevention, detection and suppression
Whatever sparked the fire of 1923 — an errant power line, a careless cigarette — “it is reasonable to assume that had this fire occurred Monday morning instead of at noon, a much greater amount of property would have been destroyed and probably nearer 100,000 people would have been homeless,” according to a Sept. 28, 1923 report from Jesse W. Nelson, an assistant district forester with the U.S. Forest Service; E.F. Barnes, a district fire warden with the California Board of Forestry; and Emanuel Fritz, a professor of forestry at UC Berkeley.
Patrolmen from the East Bay Water Company had alerted the nearest fire warden, stationed in Oakland, just after the fire started and well before the Berkeley Fire Department ever heard about it. But the warden, after traveling to the scene, “was unable to cope with the situation with the absolutely inadequate organization and means at his disposal,” wrote Barnes, Fritz and Nelson.
The triumvirate recommended a prevention, detection and suppression campaign, including firebreaks, stricter rules on camping and other fires, lookout towers linked to city agencies by dedicated telephone lines, horseback patrols, more fire tools and water pumps. They also recommended a regional fire service covering the entire territory from Berkeley to San Leandro, answerable to the state and able to coordinate firefighting activity with local fire departments.
The commerce of calamity
To protect fire victims from price gouging, Berkeley passed a temporary emergency ordinance three days after the fire, freezing rents and fixing prices for household accommodations, building materials, food, clothing and other items at “prevailing” rates compared to nearby communities not grappling with emergencies.
Some local retailers offered to forgive any debts owed by customers living in the burned area.
But some manufacturers and insurers opted to capitalize on the catastrophe by advertising more durable building materials and more robust policies for homeowners.
“This apartment house did not burn. Hillam plastered it!” read a Sept. 23 advertisement for A.J. Hillam, a Fruitvale-based plastering contractor, in the Oakland Tribune. The ad showed an image of a three-story apartment building on Euclid Avenue. “All the houses around this building were burned, but this one stood the test of the fire.”
N.A. Dickey, general manager of the California Brick Company and Livermore Brick Works, took out an ad the same day to flog his wares, albeit with rebates for Berkeleyans in the fire zone, and decry “backward” wood construction.
“It must not happen again … build with brick,” The California Common Brick Manufacturers Association advertised.
On Sept. 26, the Eastbay Manufacturers’ Exposition and Fiesta de la Laguna was reorganized to include an exhibit from a Master Plasterers’ Association, which showed photographs meant to demonstrate how stucco and plaster walls were more fireproof. They had stiff competition for attention — there was a “Better Baby Show” with 500 entrants, and another 500 competitive whisker-growers were scheduled to attend as well.
The city made special allowances for residents in the fire zone to use tents as homes for up to 90 days and garages for a year.
“The ’23 fire caught people off-guard,” said Scott L. Stephens, a professor of fire science and forest policy at UC Berkeley. The membrane between wildland and cities, what California fire agencies now typically call the Wildland Urban Interface, wasn’t in the lexicon at the time, he said. “In the western U.S., the ’23 fire was one of the very first to actually cause such damage to an urban area adjacent to wildland.”
The northwest corner of campus, near where the fire’s progress finally halted, became a tent village for refugees, Stephens said. The city set up another tent outpost in Codornices Park, according to news reports from the time.
By year’s end, several cities in the Bay Area, Berkeley among them, adopted ordinances banning wood shingle roofing — a more affordable option than tile but a material more likely to catch fire and send embers flying further. In Berkeley, the proscription was short-lived. A referendum the following May, known colloquially as “the lumbermen’s ordinance,” overturned it, the Oakland Tribune reported on May 7, 1924.
The state would eventually require all new roofs to have at least some minimal level of fire resistance. But that change was not enacted until 1992 after another destructive fire — spanning parts of Berkeley, Oakland and beyond — laid waste to thousands more homes and killed 25 people in 1991.
The National Board of Fire Underwriters pegged the total damage at $10 million in 1923, according to San Francisco Chronicle reports from that December. In today’s dollars, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator.
The underwriters specifically called out wood-shingle roofs for their capacity to spread fire. The shingles on walls and roofs were a common element in the Arts-and-Crafts architecture popular at the time.
The number of building permits issued in Berkeley spiked in the post-fire years, from 2,182 in 1922 to 4,293 in 1925, Linda P. Rosen wrote in Tempered by Fire: History of the Berkeley Fire Department. The year after the fire, there were 244 building permits issued in the fire zone alone, according to the Oakland Tribune.
With the fire fresh in Berkeleyans’ minds, many of the rebuilds that sprang up in the burned-out neighborhoods had stucco walls and tiled roofs.
The fire towers that the federal, state and university foresters had recommended following the 1923 fire were built, one on Grizzly Peak in 1924 and the other on Round Top in 1927.
Fighting fire with no water
As entire neighborhoods burned, little water flowed beneath them for firefighters to put on the flames. The East Bay Municipal Utilities District, which would eventually buy out the East Bay Water Company, had formed in 1923 but was nowhere close to delivering water at the time of the fire.
The East Bay Water Company itself had been cobbled together just seven years prior when its predecessor, the Peoples Water Company, went bankrupt during a drought, Charles Wollenberg wrote in Berkeley: A City in History. East Bay pulled water from a new San Pablo Reservoir and the Wildcat Creek Watershed. Water service was so poor that several firms, including the Goodyear Tire Company, decided not to set up shop in the East Bay, Wollenberg wrote.
Berkeley was well aware of its water problem.
“American cities generally have a great fire hazard with their houses and roofs constructed of wood, and Berkeley, in particular, has known of its inadequate water mains,” then-Berkeley Mayor Frank D. Stringham said at the time, according to an Oakland Tribune report.
Then-Fire Chief G. Sydney Rose “declared today that in the upper portion of the burning district there was practically no water at all to aid the firefighters in their efforts to bring the conflagration under control,” the Oakland Tribune reported the day after the fire.
The State Railroad Commission ordered the East Bay Water Company to install larger mains in Berkeley — including one along Virginia Street — six months after the fire. Berkeley, which had only requested 8- to 10-inch mains, invested $400,000 in new mains that year through East Bay, according to the Oakland Tribune.
Meanwhile, the district, now commonly known as EBMUD, built out its infrastructure over the next six years through a series of bond issues. By 1930, it had purchased the East Bay Water Company, connecting Berkeley to water sources in the Sierra Nevada.
But as time passed, the lessons of 1923 began to fade as decades of depression and war gripped the country.
“I don’t think there was much that’s kind of handed down, that people thought about it in the ’50s, for example, or the ’60s,'” said Shirley Dean, a former city mayor and current Fire and Disaster Safety Commissioner. “I first ran for public office in 1975, and it was not a topic of concern.”
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.