The fire zone

oakland hills fire

I was across the bay on October 19, 1991, doing a freelance job at some client whose name I forget. It was a hot day, and I saw a tall plume of smoke in the Oakland hills. The fire people worked on it, and that evening as I headed back across the bay it seemed to be over. But the following day, 20 years ago today, an ember got loose and took out a huge swath of the hills with some three thousand homes on it. It was a terrifying day, like something out of Lord of the Rings. Thick smoke covered the whole sky, and the east wind wouldn’t let up. The city was at nature’s mercy until the winds turned, late in the afternoon. For years afterward we would find pieces of charred wood in our garden that had dropped from the sky that day.

Apparently the same thing had happened in 1970. Historians reminded us that it happened in 1923, too. Before that the native inhabitants made a practice of torching the hills often to keep the land clear. But in the aftermath of 1991 the hills were hastily repopulated and reforested by residents whose driving urge was to make the pain stop. They had the eager help of insurance companies, placing their bets on the enduring value of view lots.

Today these fireprone hills are platted out for houses forever, even the impossible slopes of Charing Cross Road. Now the hills are in an unsustainable cycle of building expensive homes cheek by jowl on inadequate streets, growing inertia as fuel builds up and preparations lapse, one dire day of conflagration, and heedless rebuilding. The earthquake cycle is just a slower version of this fire cycle. If madness is doing the same things in the face of futility, then Oakland has gone mad. It doesn’t have to be this way.

About these ads

4 Responses to “The fire zone”

  1. Judy Judd Says:

    This is very moving. Thank you for telling it this way.

  2. Richard Says:

    Good retrospective of that day and your reflections. I was at my parents home in Orinda that day, they were out of town and I was putting the finishing touches on an aluminum greenhouse I had purchased from someone in the Oakland Hills, disassembled and brought over to Orinda piece by piece. The person I purchased the greenhouse from was an old man who had a gorgeous gothic-style Victorian in the pine forest above and just to the west of Lake Temescal. The times I came over doing the dis-assembly was fun as he’d invite me in and we’d talk about his days as an orchid judge and how his deceased wife would paint his orchid blooms, all this 10 years prior. I was only 28 at the time and I so admired his beautiful old home wishing I could one day own something like it. As I worked on the greenhouse that day plumes of smoke rose from the hills to the west of Orinda (my parents home was half way between Orinda and Moraga on a ridge line a mile or so north of Miramonte HS). What at first looked like smoke from a small brush fire soon turned into a huge volcanic-like mushroom cloud. I knew something was amiss big time. My first check of the TV news around late morning showed nothing, a hour or so later it was all over the news and the cloud of smoke got even bigger. Being on the leeward side of the wind east of the fire gave an eery detailed look to the smoke. A few weeks after the fire when it was safer to go up on the area affected by the fire I found the old man’s house, or what was left of it. The beautiful pine forest was completely gone as was almost any sign of a home or the small guest house his young grand daughter had been living in, having been there. I did find the outline of the larger home’s foundation though, and as I sat there I found the place about where I had sat in what had once been the living room of such a beautiful home and almost cried. Never found out what happened to him….

  3. Farmlady Says:

    I went to the City that day with my Mom. We were going to the Opera. We couldn’t go through the tunnel so we had to go over Fish Ranch Rd. and down into North Berkeley to get into San Francisco.
    I remember the heat and the odd wind blowing from the east. By the time we left the afternoon opera, we saw this cloud spreading over the Bay. It was frightening. You account brought it all back. We drove across the Bay Bridge and clear down to Richmond to Highway 4 and home.
    The news was filled with the disaster. We watched as each home burned to the ground.
    You are so right about what has happen since. Wealthy folks rebuilt and thousands of houses have spread, again, over the hills.

    “Now the hills are in an unsustainable cycle of building expensive homes cheek by jowl on inadequate streets, growing inertia as fuel builds up and preparations lapse, one dire day of conflagration, and heedless rebuilding. The earthquake cycle is just a slower version of this fire cycle. If madness is doing the same things in the face of futility, then Oakland has gone mad.”
    When are we going to learn? If not by tragic fires and the coming earthquake… when will folks pay attention? It’s only a matter of time.

  4. Oakland Daily Photo Says:

    I share your concerns. Also made a post about the firestorm’s anniversary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,853 other followers

%d bloggers like this: