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Hills fire breeds unity and capital

By Mielikki Org Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday October 24, 2001

One autumn day in October of 1991, Michael Kovac, 44, and his wife Karen returned to their Berkeley home from a weekend trip only to find their home had burned down in the catastrophic Oakland -Berkeley Hills fire. 

Despite the devastation, the Kovacs’ first and foremost worry – after accounting for friends and neighbors – was about their cat, who hadn’t turned up at any of the animal shelters. A few days later, PG&E workers came across her near a house that had just missed the fire. 

“We had accounted for everybody, had accounted for all of the animals, and all the other things suddenly didn’t matter so much any more,” Kovac said. 

Ten years after the wildfire that consumed 3,200 homes and left 25 dead, surviving residents have shifted their concerns from personal security to real estate. 

Houses that used to sell for half a million dollars now attract offers of twice that much.  

“Houses up there are very expensive,” says Nacio Brown, a real estate broker since 1984 at Coldwell Banker in Berkeley. “The minimum price is $700,000, up to and over $1 million.” 

Referring to the owner of a $1.5 million home, Brown said: “Some dot-com guy has got the whole hill.” 

The rebuilding has attracted mixed reviews. Some say the Mediterranean-style villas, which sometimes sprawl across 6,000 feet are gorgeous; others say they are monstrous or ostentatious. 

The critical attention may be a result of new ordinances, which require residents and fire departments to control vegetation. Because of this, houses once completely hidden from Highway 13 by trees are now in plain view.  

“The hardest part of moving in here, at first, was how barren it was,” said Lisa Moscaret-Burr, 45, a Berkeley hills resident. “You’d look out the windows and all you could see were other houses. Until some of these trees grew in, it felt like we were living on the moon.” 

Most people decided to rebuild their homes not out of nostalgia, but because they could make money. 

Kevin Brown, a broker at Berkeley Hills Realty for the past 20 years, said there has been a tremendous appreciation in the homes on the hill during the past few years. People who rebuilt huge houses from their insurance settlements, he said, were just trying “to get the most out of the lot.”  

“The owners made out like bandits,” Nacio Brown said.  

Owners of smaller houses before, he added, were “not using the asset to its max.”  

Brown also said he believes the smaller, surviving houses are more at risk of future fires. 

“(The new houses) have better energy conservation and much better construction,” Brown says.  

The new construction, does not appear to have divided owners of expensive homes from residents who chose not to rebuild. Instead, those interviewed said they found increased cooperation among residents. 

“After the fire, the neighborhood came together like in times of disaster,” Kovac said. “We didn’t know anybody and then we ended up knowing everybody on the block.” 

Residents now take individual and communal measures to protect the area against fire.  

“Everybody has a role,” said Kovac, who has since rebuilt his home. “If something happens, depending on what you need, there’s someone to call.” 

Beyond the money to be made, Moscaret-Burr said a stronger neighborhood association has arisen than what previously existed. 

“There is a command center at a neighbor’s pool house,” she said. “It’s stocked with food. And we’ve been trained on fire hoses. The neighborhood is much more cohesive now. That’s a nice outgrowth. 

“It would have been nice if we could have just gotten to know each other without the fire,” she added. 

According to both real estate brokers, homeowners showed no reluctance to return to their homes after the fire. 

Kevin Brown, citing the San Francisco fire and earthquake of 1906, said this is a normal reaction. 

“People rebuilt their homes after the San Francisco fire, almost a hundred years ago,” he said. “Natural disasters here are very few and far between. Because of the infrequency of those events, people don’t dwell on them.”