Remembering the Firestorm (First Person)

By Dorothy Snodgrass
Tuesday October 18, 2011 - 11:52:00 AM

I shall never forget October 19, 1991, the day of the Oakland Hills Firestorm. From my sixth floor window looking out on the east bay hills, I saw one house after the other go up in flames. At the same time, I could also watch this devastation on my television, a rather surrealistic touch. I stayed glued to my window most of that day. 

The fire started Saturday from a grass fire in the Berkeley Hills and raged for nearly 72 hours, killing 25 people, and injuring 150. The 1,520 acres destroyed included 3,354 single family dwellings 437 apartments and condominiums. The loss was estimated at $1.5 billion. As many as 400 engine companies and 1500 personnel worked to put out the fire. The firestorm threatened the historic Claremont Hotel, but was stopped before it reached the hotel. By Wednesday, October 23rd, the fire was declared under control, almost 72 hours after it started. At the fire's peak, it destroyed one home every 11 seconds and had spread to the nearby Parkwood Apartments, Hiller Highlands, Montclair and upper Rockridge. (Those hot, dry winds were dubbed "Diablo Winds.") 

Several of my friends were affected by the fire. One called me from Minden, Nevada, frantic to check on her family's handsome home on Claremont Boulevard. I was able to assure her that it was intact. Another friend, attending a Sunday matinee at the S.F. Opera House, was greeted by her son on a motorcycle, with the sad news that she probably had lost her home, a short distance from the Claremont Hotel. Happily her house was spared, but not those of neighbors and she found it heartbreaking to be the only survivor on her block. An elderly friend lost her home on upper Ocean Avenue and a Julie Morgan building was destroyed. My dentist, living in Hiller Highlands, saw his house demolished. And a U.C. professor on Alvarado Road suffered the loss of his home. 

Richard Misrach, a local photographer, has taken haunting images of the Oakland Firestorm. His photography exhibit, as shown on p. D1 of the October 13th Oakland Tribune, can be viewed at the U.C. Art Museum and the Oakland Museum through February. 

While it's inevitable that October brings with it hot, dry winds, I pray to the Almighty that we're spared the traumatic experience of another Fire Storm!