Southeast Berkeley was full of fear and chaos October 20, 1991. People poured down Tunnel Road, evacuating from the fire above. Emergency vehicles chugged and sirened in the opposite direction. Homes along some of Berkeley’s most charmed streets—Alvarado Road, Vicente Road, Roble Road—were ablaze, along with hundreds of residences in Oakland. For hours, it looked as if the Claremont Hotel would become a gigantic torch.
Twenty years later, Saturday, October 22, 2011, that affluent edge of Berkeley could not have been more tranquil. Dog walkers, recreational cyclists, and strollers populated the streets in the bright, warm, weather. There was a faint on-shore breeze, but mainly still, balmy, air.
The brief business block of Domingo Avenue had its usual mid-morning chaos of Rick and Ann’s brunchers, Peetniks, and Bread Garden patrons. Across the street, tennis players practiced on the courts below the Claremont.
The drivers going fast were presumably late for some petty appointment or excursion, not fleeing a fire.
A 20th anniversary commemoration was held at the Gateway Emergency preparedness Exhibit Center in Oakland, where Hiller Drive dips down to meet Tunnel Road. It was a short event, heavy with dignitaries and memories, stories told by firefighters, residents, a woman who was just nine in 1991, and civic leaders.
“That was the day that changed all of our lives and our neighborhoods and our country”, said Betty Ann Bruno, retired KTVU TV reporter, who made the introductions.
“Everyone…literally has images of that day burned into his or her memory.” “That was the day that changed all of our lives and our neighbors and our community.”
“This is also a day to mark the journey we have made since then”, she said. “History says that every 20 or 25 years the hills will burn. Well maybe this is the day to say maybe history won’t be repeated here…”
Mayor Jean Quan
“All of us have our memories”, said Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, the second speaker. “Many of you lost members of your families.” She recalled that she was “a much younger School Board member then”, waiting for news of whether the elementary schools in the fire zone had been destroyed.
“What came out of that (the Firestorm) was a spirit, and a long series of reforms that we now take for granted”, she emphasized. “The way we buy insurance in California has changed”, FEMA procedures have been updated to include many of the lessons learned from the Firestorm and recovery.
“How we build our homes in the hills” is different, the rebuilt areas have underground utilities, and “eventually we’re going to be able to take out some eucalyptus”, one of the introduced tree species blamed for the rapid spread of the fire. Oakland has a fire assessment district in the hills, and hazard abatement program.
“We’re all working to change how we live in our hills”, Quan said. “These reforms, these changes, came out of the sacrifices and sad tragedy of 20 years ago.” “
She thanked representatives of several fire departments outside Oakland that had attending, standing in a long, blue, line along one of the walkway approaches to the memorial area.
“Maybe we can convince Mother Nature not to have a big fire in Central Oakland”, she said.
But, “we’re a city that has to be vigilant, it’s God’s price for living here” with an enviable climate, setting, scenery, and community threatened by natural disaster. “No, I didn’t arrange to have the little tremors” earlier in the week, she joked.
In the aftermath of the Fire, “we learned to take care of each other”, Quan concluded. “I’m so proud to be Mayor of this city.” “We stood up and rebuilt.”
By my count there were perhaps one hundred members of the audience and dignitaries, plus dozens of fire personnel from various departments. Many of the civilian attendees were middle aged or elderly, although there were some children and young adults.
Behind the massed fire personnel a steep bluff rose, brown with dry grass, dotted over with green shrubbery, and topped by some of the rebuilt condominiums of Hiller Highlands.
The memorial itself—a platform with a stone entrance, framed overhead in metal beams to resemble a half-built, or half destroyed, house—was surrounded by low plantings, bright with the fall gold of ginkgos, the purple spikes of Mexican bush sage, and the silver green of olives.
At the base of the bluff, there was a sign announcing the memorial, posted below a slightly tilted, permanent, warning sign. “Fire Danger Today MODERATE. Be Fire Safe!”
Beyond the speaker podium across the valley was a view of the Rockridge heights that had burned, now lined with vegetation and large, newer, houses and beyond that, the towers of San Francisco and Emeryville, and the Bay.
It grew considerably warm on the open-air platform, below a bright, almost cloudless, sky. There was haze over the Bay in the distance, but no wind blew down the canyons. The roar of freeway traffic was a constant in the background.
An intermittent stream of bicyclists passed by; some stopped and curiously watched a few minutes of the ceremony, before peddling off again up or down the steep hill.
Mayor Tom Bates
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates spoke next, telling essentially the same story he had recounted at a City Council meeting a few weeks before. Serving in the Legislature at the time of the Fire, he said, “we were all shocked at what we saw.” Fire units came from all over the State, but couldn’t communicate by radio with each other, there was “no command structure” for the whole operation, and “Berkeley firefighters had not trained on wildfires in the hills.” “It was a disaster”.
“I was so livid I introduced legislation saying ‘we’re going to have one fire department’, and they all freaked out”, Bates recalled. Eventually, reforms included improving communications, getting universal connectors so one department could use another jurisdiction’s hydrants, and formation of on-going coordination bodies like the Hills Emergency Forum that involves several East Bay cities, entities, and districts.
“They train together, they work together, and they ended up being one of the best firefighting units in the world”, Bates said of the local fire departments.
“In looking back, I’m just so proud of the progress we made”, he concluded. “Hopefully we won’t have to go through this again, but if we have to, I feel like we’ll be ready.”
Oakland Fire Chief
Interim Fire Chief of Oakland, Mark Hoffmann, spoke next, telling the crowd “I know many of you individually and I rarely have a chance to thank you all together.”
“There will fires in the future in this area” he emphasized. “We have done a lot of training, we have done a lot of preparation.” Personal equipment, hoses, and fire engines have been upgraded. “We are all on the same page” in terms of mutual response, he said. “We have inter-operability.”
Hoffman recalled his personal experience of the fire twenty years ago. “I was so out of my element as a structure fire fighter”, he said. Now, Oakland regularly sends crews to help fight wildfires in Southern California and the Sierra foothills as part of interagency cooperation and training routine.
He brought the gathering back to the personal nature of the tragedy. “We’re here because people lost their lives and lost their properties” twenty years ago. “I’d like to personally share my condolences with you.”
“There WILL be another fire”, he emphasized again. “There will be another earthquake. And preparedness is the key.”
He concluded by noting that an estimated two thirds of the people now living in the Oakland Hills weren’t residents there twenty years ago. “So please, choir in front of me, help carry the word.” “When the next one happens, and it will, hopefully it will be no where close to what we experienced 20 years ago” because of preparation and awareness.
Berkeley’s Fire Chief
“I remember the smell of smoke, and the smoke turning daylight into darkness”, Chief Deborah Prior of the Berkeley Fire Department told the crowd. In 1991 she was on the Berkeley force, but visiting her mother on a day off when the Fire started.
Returning to Berkeley she joined an engine that was sent to relieve another crew that had been defending houses along Roble Road for hours. The first African-American woman to be Berkeley’s Chief, she said, “as a child, my grandmother was a housekeeper for several houses on Roble Court”, and she knew the area well.
Since the fire, the local fire departments have worked hard to improve coordination, radio communication, wildland firefighting equipment and training, she said. Mutual aid agreements are in place that lift jurisdictional boundaries, so the nearest fire companies can respond to a wildfire emergency even if it’s across borders.
“Strong community support” for disaster preparedness has continued, she added. She emphasized four on-going themes: vegetation management; community training and disaster preparedness; improved construction codes; more resources, such as emergency water supplies and specialized engines. Berkeley has, she said, 52 disaster equipment caches distributed through the City, with residents trained to use them.
“Regardless of our accomplishments”, she concluded, “there is still room for improvement.” Pryor noted the need for one way or restricted parking on narrow streets in hazardous areas—I saw many of the firefighters in the audience nod at that—better regional planning, and further work on building code improvements.
“We all play a key role in our own personal preparedness, and neighborhood readiness”, she emphasized.
A trio of 1991 Oakland Hills residents spoke next.
“Those of us who survived the Fire and rebuilt find ourselves filled with strong surges of emotion”, said David Kessler, who lost his home, and has been active since in both recovery and education efforts. He wore to the ceremony a hat that was one of the few items he and his wife had taken from their home as they evacuated.
Calling the area, “this beautiful corner of the Earth”, he talked about feelings of sadness, but also the pride survivors had in coping with the losses, pressuring insurance companies for equitable settlements, and rebuilding. We learned that by working together, we could do it”, he said. “And we have retained this lesson.”
Echoing Hoffman and Pryor, Kessler stressed that “we know that continual vigilance in reducing dangerous fuels” is necessary. “We also know we cannot do it ourselves”, alone. “The good thing the Fire brought us was how good human beings can be”, he said.
“Berkeley and Oakland have taken so many lessons from this experience to heart.” “Our goal in this conversation is not to dwell on the past but to keep these hills safe for generations to come.”
“May those events of 1991 be the last time our hills are the scene of such an overwhelming tragedy”, he concluded.
“This is a day of remembrance,” said Ken Benson, the former chair of the Oakland Wildfire Prevention Assessment District. He said that thirty-seven years ago his father, a fire battalion chief in Southern California, died after injuries in a fire. “Volunteerism and response is the call of a firefighter”, he said.
Benson recalled a number of Hills residents who were instrumental in disaster recovery and setting up the assessment district. “There will be another fire, and there will always be a need for that activism that draws us to live in Oakland.”
“It’s because I clear my property, and set an example for my neighborhood, it’s why we’re successful,” he said to illustrate why individual action is necessary. “If you live in the Oakland Hills, make sure you’re involved in the Oakland Hills.”
The last speaker was Joanne Cuevas Ingram, who was nine years old when her mother told her “it’s time to go, we have to get out”, from their home as the fire approached. The sky was red. She looked for her favorite doll, she said, but couldn’t find it and grabbed a bag of school supplies.
“As we inched down Hiller Drive, an entire grove of eucalyptus exploded in front of us”, she remembered. The car turned hot inside, despite the air conditioning.
After they escaped the fire zone and drove west through Berkeley, “we saw people in fear running down Ashby and Telegraph Avenue. Everyone thought the fire would burn to the Bay.”
“I reflect about community, about compassion and support,” she said, recalling the help her family was offered after the Fire. “The most important thing in your life is the strength of your relationships.”
State Senator Loni Hancock, who was Mayor of Berkeley during the Fire, told the crowd “what an extraordinary group of people we have this day.” She recalled she was in Yosemite on the day of the Fire and was handed a note, “go home at once, Berkeley burning down.”
She said this was a “day of realizing that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.”
Hancock praised, in particular, then-Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi “who went right to bat” against insurance companies that were dragging fire area policyholders through delays or refusing to pay. She also thanked the fire fighters and presented a resolution from the local legislative delegation.
She remembered “the people who lost their lives because of our lack of readiness, the chaos.”
Earlier in the remembrances Bruno had noted a firefighter had once told her, “that day we did not win. The Fire eventually stopped because the wind did, and it turned on itself.”
To conclude the ceremony, Hancock read the names of those who died in the Firestorm on October 20, 1991. Chief Hoffman then asked Pryor, Kessler, and Ingram to join him next to a silver bell set near the podium.
The bell ceremony, he said, dates back hundreds of years as a firefighting tradition. Bells used to govern the lives of firefighters, summoning them to work, sending out alarms, ringing on the horse drawn apparatus as they raced to fires. Today, sirens substitute, but the bell is used to remember those who have passed. It’s a “shared experience”, Hoffman said.
The bell is traditionally rung at memorials for firefighters, but today, Hoffman said, it would be run in the traditional “three times three” cadence in memory of all those who died in the 1991 firestorm, “because of the people in the community who helped to fight the fire.”
As the ceremony concluded, a procession of fire trucks representing some of the agencies that had fought the Firestorm passed below the Exhibit Center. Led by an engine from Oakland, they included delegations from Berkeley, Emeryville, Alameda County and Fremont. They headed to the afternoon Preparedness Fair at Lake Temescal.
I drove up Hiller Drive into the hills. I’d periodically gone to meetings there before the Fire, and remembered former residents and their 60s-Modern homes, how replaced on the same sites with 90’s Modern, some of them now beginning to show age and wear. At the Highlands Country Club the flags were flying at full staff.
It was the middle of a warm fall day. There were no people on the streets and almost no cars moving. Few taller trees stand in the townhouse area. It’s mainly buildings and low plantings, facing the spectacular views, across the crown of the slope and wide streets with the familiar names of the Firestorm—the places where people fled, and some died as the flames, came rapidly over the ridge behind them—Schooner Hill and Windward Hill, Charing Cross Road, Spy Glass Hill, Grand View Drive.
Higher up the slopes and ridges there are stands of eucalyptus, patchwork grass, and larger private homes. I returned down the other side of Hiller Highlands, passing the Kaiser School, the Bentley School, and the Firestorm Memorial Garden where the road runs into the top of Tunnel Road and the freeway approaches.
Flowers were in bloom beside a bench and a handcrafted drinking fountain that is a memorial to Chief James M. Riley, Jr., the Oakland firefighter who died in the Firestorm. “Drink and Remember”, the pedestal reads. Not a soul was there.