The gulf between the fire of 1923 and the fire service of 2023 is as wide as that between horse-drawn carriages and artificial intelligence. But with nearly twice as many people living in the city now as there were then, the risk of a catastrophic fire remains a fact of life for Berkeley.
Chief James Kenney brought the Berkeley Fire Department into the automobile age beginning in 1907 with a single vehicle. Horses were still pulling steam pumpers at the time, but the department began refitting the trailers to haul them behind trucks.
“Sometimes horses proved more reliable, but residents complained about the flies,” Linda P. Rosen wrote in Tempered by Fire: A History of the Berkeley Fire Department.
Berkeley became the first fully mechanized fire department west of the Mississippi River in 1915, Rosen wrote.
G. Sydney Rose took over command of the department in 1916 after Kenney was killed responding to a fire at the El Dorado Oil Works at Second Street and University Avenue. Kenney had crashed his automobile into a telephone pole on his way to the scene, extricated himself and hitched a ride the rest of the way, Rosen wrote. “He was overcome by smoke from blazing coconut and copra oil and died while his cousin was driving him to Roosevelt Hospital.”
This week, Berkeley firefighters trained on brand-new breathing apparatuses, upgrades to their old ones that are designed to keep them safe when fire attacks force them to charge into smoke- and fume-filled buildings. Modern firefighters’ breathers have lights and alarms to help them keep track of their own and each other’s air levels and allow firefighters to share oxygen with each other’s tanks.
A time of socialists and prohibition
To put the fire of 1923 in a different context, the same week it struck, Eugene V. Debs visited San Quentin State Prison to chat with Thomas Mooney, a San Francisco labor leader who had been imprisoned for his purported complicity with a bombing of a Preparedness Day celebration in 1916. (Mooney would be pardoned in 1939.)
Outside Berkeley, the Hotel Oakland was under investigation, accused of hosting events where alcohol was served when the Constitution banned it.
Within Berkeley, the city government that year shifted executive authority to a newly created city manager position. John North Edy, 39 at the time, who had previously worked in Montana as a public engineer and surveyor, took the job at an annual salary of $7,500 and would go on to be the first city manager in three other cities — Flint, Michigan, Dallas and Houston, Texas.
While in Berkeley, Edy instituted the practice of having department heads list requests for new allowances in order of their importance “so that if cuts have to be made no essential services will suffer,” the New York Times reported in 1928.
Telephone conversations were still running on party lines, and many relied on telegrams for urgent messages.
From watchtowers to robots
Today, the fire department tracks weather conditions at least a day in advance and advises residents in high-risk parts of the city to evacuate proactively during “extreme fire weather,” when winds pick up and humidity drops.
Where firefighters and foresters had to keep watch from towers in the hills, there is now a network of cameras, Alert California, that provides early detection of ignition and other hazards to dispatch centers, Berkeley Fire Chief David Sprague said. Those dispatch centers then notify local, regional and state fire agencies who customize their responses based on weather and fuel conditions.
“The goal is just to flood the incident with enough resources to really try to stop it before it gets out of control,” Sprague said.
If a fire were to creep toward Berkeley the way the 1923 blaze had, Berkeley firefighters, along with their colleagues around the region and Cal Fire, have mutual aid plans to begin their attack, Sprague said.
The California Fire Service and Rescues Emergency Mutual Aid System has its origins in wartime civil defense and evolved after 1945 into a regionalized system where neighboring agencies work to backstop each other when a fire threatens to overwhelm one agency or another.
This year, Los Angeles-based Alchera X has been testing an artificial intelligence suite called FireScout, which it says has detected fires faster than human monitors.
On top of the lattice of high-tech fire detection spread around the state, Berkeley now has a network of outdoor warning system sirens to warn residents of impending disasters. Ten of 15 sirens are already in place, and the city predicts the last five should be operating next year.
On Sunday, the anniversary of the 1923 fire, the city plans to test the siren system.
More houses, more fuel
Shirley Dean, a former city mayor and current Fire and Disaster Safety Commissioner, said the ever-increasing density of new housing, compounded now with the prospect of accessory dwelling units or ADUs, made it even more difficult to evacuate the city.
“We are worse off now than we were 100 years ago, there is no doubt in my mind,” Dean said. “I don’t know what we would do if this city had to evacuate.”
Scott L. Stephens, a professor of fire science and forest policy at UC Berkeley, also said the city is still vulnerable. He recalled bringing colleagues from Perth, Australia, where the climate is comparable to Berkeley’s, on a tour of the Berkeley Hills and Wildcat Canyon 12 or 15 years ago.
“They said that housing stock was the worst they’ve ever seen in their whole professional career,” Stephens said. “A lot of our housing stock hasn’t been really changed from its architecture long ago. So there’s no doubt another big fire like that could happen in the Berkeley Hills.”
New construction today has tighter restrictions, making it more difficult for an ember to find a glued joist or piece of synthetic-upholstered furniture to ignite, “but that’s not really the hills here, most of our housing stock is 50 to 100 years old,” Sprague told Berkeleyside. “We have tons of wood siding. … It would be better if our homes had a fireproof exterior, it’d be better if our homes had the simple things done like mesh on our gutters, mesh behind all the vents that lead into the attic space, crawlspace of our homes. We have not done a good job at creating defensible space around our homes.”
And no matter how fire-resistant newer homes may be, there are now many more. Berkeley’s population has nearly doubled since 1923. Compounding the equation is the proliferation of blue-gum eucalyptus trees, which produce oily firebrands when ignited and thick peeling bark even when they are not. They and other non-native tree species have grown where there used to be grassland and pastures.
The Berkeley FireSafe Council, a nonprofit previously known as the Hillside Fire Safety Group, warned that a wildfire coming into the city could be even worse today. They have advocated for wide fuel breaks along the wildland-urban interface, vegetation management, home hardening, replacing invasive trees like eucalyptus with more fire-resistant species and cleanups of the understory in hazardous groves within the city.
Recently, the Berkeley Fire Department has undertaken a more comprehensive home inspection program, with reports that recommend voluntary upgrades homeowners can undertake to make their properties more fire-safe. The department is scheduled to inspect the last two of nine zones in October and November. Both overlap the area burned in 1923.
“A lot of those homes, this part of the hills, are still incredibly vulnerable in terms of their building structure, their vegetation,” Stephens said. There have been some improvements, he said, such as to vegetation management, but “a lot of our housing stock hasn’t been really changed from its architecture long ago. So there’s no doubt another big fire like that could happen in the Berkeley Hills.”
Many agencies, one goal
Some of the strategies from a century ago remain the same. Fire services have cut fuel breaks since well before the 20th century and still do today. But the local flora has changed and, in much of the hills around Berkeley, grown denser since then.
The Berkeley Fire Department works to reduce fire fuel in “strategic pathways,” Sprague said. Across the ridge the East Bay Regional Park District has its own fuel management program, thinning or clearing 1,000 acres or more every year in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Neighboring agencies like the Moraga-Orinda Fire District and other local fire departments have fuel break programs and run controlled burns. UC Berkeley has been trying for over a decade to clear dozens of acres of trees for fuel breaks, held up by several rounds of lawsuits that just resolved this year.
In Berkeley in 1923, nearly a century before Gofundme or NextDoor, the city sent criers through burned neighborhoods telling refugees to register at police headquarters, and pleading with residents in unburned areas to invite them into their homes. Today, the Berkeley Fire Department and other city emergency agencies urge residents, especially those in the vulnerable hillside neighborhoods, to have evacuation plans mapped out ahead of time, and encourage those neighborhoods to evacuate proactively when extreme fire weather moves in. Because for all the fuel management work that local fire agencies and volunteer safety groups perform, the specter of an unstoppable fire sweeping down the hills still looms over the city.
“That’s oftentimes where these really catastrophic fires occur,” Sprague said of extreme fire weather days. They are rare, he said, sometimes not occurring even once in a calendar year. But their scarcity is matched only by the danger they pose.
“We think that in those really rare cases that it’s most prudent for as many people as possible to leave the hills before the weather hits, because we know the risk is so great, that’s the most prudent advice we can give,” Sprague said. “That is not a common policy, but given what we’re seeing with climate change, and the repetition of these fires moving so quick, there’s so many different things that can go wrong — that can inhibit communication with the public or our response — that whatever we can do before a fire hits makes sense to me. Get people out of the way, get people out of the hills, and that reduces the number of people in harm’s way.”
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 yet learned — from this fire and others.