After months of dry weather and as fall approaches, the temperature in the Bay Area rises, often accompanied by dry hot winds from the east. California is no stranger to the threat of huge fires; they have occurred from the coast to the high Sierra and in the north and south.
On Sept. 17, 1923, and Oct. 20, 1991, two raging wildfires erupted in the East Bay hills behind Berkeley and Oakland.
The 1923 Berkeley fire destroyed between 500-600 buildings in North Berkeley, most of them residential.
The 1991 Oakland fire consumed approximately 3,000 buildings, also predominately residential, extending from above the Claremont Hotel south into upper Rockridge.
In both instances the winds came from the northeast in exactly the same direction and it was only because of a change in wind direction that the fires were contained. Between these two major fires there had been two smaller ones that destroyed a total of 28 homes.
A contemporary account from 1923 describes the destruction:
“A square mile of charred relics spreading from Cragmont to the edge of the University grounds...no words could convey the power of the torrent of flame which demolished in a few short hours on Sept. 17, 1923 one of the most beautiful residence tracts of Berkeley...it was only a fortunate change in the wind after the flames had reached the very edge of the business center that saved the city from destruction...The scene of desolation will soon be a fading memory...providing the calamity that wrought it is not so completely forgotten as to make its recurrence possible.”
Frank Stringham, mayor of Berkeley at the time of the 1923 fire, proclaimed: “The municipal government of Berkeley...is bending every effort to rebuild the burned area and to so direct and regulate construction that the fire hazard will be reduced, the traffic ways improved, and the uses of property better adapted to locality....”
But lessons were not heeded. After the 1923, fire as well as after the 1991 fire, streets were not regraded, widened or straightened and property lines remained the same.
In 1923 the few large parcels that had existed were re-subdivided into smaller lots. After the 1991 fire many of the new houses well exceed the size of those that were lost. In both cases the building density increased.
The style of homes built after both fires is different from the older houses that were destroyed.
In both cases most of the new houses reflect the styles popular at the time.
For example, in 1923 Period Revival style buildings clad in stucco with tile or slate roofs were built. Not only were these the latest popular style, they were also considered more fireproof than the shingled houses which burned. For a time wood shingles were banned in Berkeley.
Ironically, the areas which burned in the 1991 fire had been mostly built in the 1920s and 30s, predominately in Period Revival styles. Their tile roofs and stucco siding, placed over wood-framing, did not protect them from the heat of the raging fire.
Fires are a personal tragedy for their victims and also a cultural and architectural loss for the community. Despite our modern firefighting equipment, when a 2,300 degree Fahrenheit firestorm rages in a hot, dry wind it appears there is little defense.
Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny is author of the book Berkeley Landmarks.