Remembering the 1991 firestorm: The view from campus

On Oct. 19, 1991, what’s now Memorial Glade still contained “temporary” wooden buildings from the World War II era, and the campus was starting to register students for classes for the first time without paper. Many of today’s undergraduates hadn’t yet been born.

It was a warm and sunny Saturday, and Memorial Stadium was packed for a marquee showdown between the Golden Bears and Washington Huskies. That afternoon, fans watched as a thick, ominous pillar of smoke rose into the sky above the ridgeline beyond Strawberry Canyon. It was a fire in the Oakland hills that was suppressed before it could spread from grass and brush to nearby homes.

In 1923, ‘ashes of scholarship and literature’

The Oakland hills firestorm was not a unique event for Berkeley. It echoed a fire in September 1923 that blew down from the hills in near-identical weather conditions, incinerating entire neighborhoods and some 600 homes north of campus. One-quarter of all academic personnel and roughly 1,000 students lost their homes. As undergrad Hildegarde Flanner would later recall, “ashes of scholarship and literature” filled the landscape and blanketed the campus. The fire burned to the campus edge along parts of Hearst Avenue.

And that fire was itself a virulent echo of August 1905, when a wind-whipped grass fire scorched Strawberry Canyon and burned hundreds of acres across Panoramic Hill toward the Claremont district. 

According to Tom Klatt, the Oakland/Berkeley hills have seen no fewer than 16 documented major wildfires in the past century or so, and others are unrecorded. One reason they aren’t remembered well is that most burned grassland, areas now densely developed with homes.

                                       — Steven Finacom

By next morning a hot, dry “Diablo wind” was sweeping down over those same hills. “Fire weather,” some said, as humidity dropped and leaves skittered east to west through Berkeley’s streets.

In the hills, embers of Saturday’s blaze roared back to life. It was the start of what became known as the Oakland hills firestorm, which destroyed 3,354 dwellings — the vast majority of them single-family homes — and took the lives of 25 people.

The fire had lasting impacts on the Berkeley campus community. A number of student residences were evacuated, and some 500 faculty, staff and students lost their homes. Writer Maxine Hong Kingston, a senior lecturer in the English department, lost her home, a book in progress and original manuscripts waiting to be deposited in the Bancroft Library.

Classes and work were canceled on campus the Monday after the fire. A temporary shelter was set up in Pauley Ballroom, and $400 emergency grants and loans up to $1,500 were made available to displaced students, along with a week of free housing in the residence halls. The ASUC collected and distributed free clothing, while the School of Optometry offered campus-affiliated survivors free eye exams and replacement eyewear at cost. Intercollegiate Athletics donated $100,000 to the campus fire-relief fund.   

Denial, depression, recovery

While normal campus operations quickly resumed, those who had lost their homes faced a more challenging road to recovery.

Of every hour, sociology professor Richard Ofshe told the San Francisco Chronicle in the wake of the fire, “I devote three minutes to absolute denial, five minutes to absolute depression and the remaining 52 minutes to trying to get my life back together.”

The Bancroft Library’s David Kessler had been at home with his wife when disaster struck, and managed to evacuate with a few belongings. “We were only dimly conscious that we would never see anything we left behind again,” he remembers. 

Tom Klatt (Steven Finacom photo)

Beth Muramoto, who today works in the School of Education, was in Concord visiting her mother, unaware that a few miles away her rented in-law apartment was burning.  She was left with “just the clothes on my back and my purse.”

Art-history professor David Wright was in Rome doing research when he got “an urgent message to telephone my wife.” Their Vicente Road house had burned.

“I flew over the fire,” says retired UC Cooperative Extension specialist Tim Wallace, who was returning to the Bay Area that day. He remembers the sky as “black on one side, crystal-clear on the other.” He saw brilliant bursts he believed were fireworks, “but it was houses exploding.”

“I lost all of my older research, all of my current teaching slides, notes, everything,” says Wright. “It was catastrophic.” If there was any good news, it was that he had already sent two scholarly book drafts off to the publisher.

For Muramoto, “losing everything” in the fire “coalesced for me that life is the important thing. I don’t have any sadness and regret looking back. Life is much sweeter.”

 “I’ve become far more involved in my community since the fire,” Kessler says. “The process of rebuilding and keeping our community safe from another fire or other disaster has become the focus of so much of my life and time.”   

“Twenty years later,” he adds, “my main focus is on communicating to future generations the need to work continually on vegetation management and fire prevention.” This weekend, he’ll be a speaker at the official firestorm commemoration.

Looking ahead

His views are echoed by campus researchers and staff who work on wildfire issues. One is Scott Stephens, an associate professor of fire science who, as a grad student, was among those fans watching the pillar of smoke from their seats at Memorial Stadium  Today Stephens works in a sunny office in Mulford Hall — a building, he notes, named for the founder of the old Forestry School, who lost his house in the Berkeley wildfire of 1923.

After the 1991 fire, Stephens was part of a team of researchers who plunged into studying the burned area up-close, trying to determine its exact path and processes.  “In 1991, no number of people would have had a chance to stop it once it got out of the containment area,” he says. “The question becomes not how you fight fire, but how you live with it.” 

Australia, which has severe dry-season wildfires, makes a point of engaging people in the discussion of the interface between homes and wildlands, he observes. “While the focus in the United States is on evacuating residents and letting professionals fight wildfires, in Australia there are neighborhood volunteer fire brigades. Residents are trained and equipped, and are an integral part of response.” 

Better leadership should come from the state of California, Stephens says, adding, “If it can happen there, why not here?”

Environmental-projects manager Tom Klatt is a campus point-person on wildfire issues. He has spearheaded FEMA grants for fire mitigation to remove eucalyptus on the ridgelines and canyons, organized volunteers and personally led efforts to remove dangerous fuel loads on campus property that includes Claremont Canyon.    

Over several years the upper-canyon landscapes owned by the campus have started to change from a matrix of eucalyptus and pine woodland and brush back to the shrubland that dominated the hills in earlier decades. Volunteers, including visiting students from China, gathered last weekend for one such project.

 “The campus should feel good” about its fire prevention efforts since 1991, Stephens says, including ongoing cooperation with other agencies through the 20-year-old Hills Emergency Forum.  

“We’re much better off now,” agrees Tim Wallace. 

Nonetheless, he warns, “No matter how much you plan, (the hills) still burn. Botany moves forward, whether mankind does or not.”   

A one-acre grove of eucalyptus, Wallace explains, can drop up to 10 tons of dead leaf, bark and branch debris in a year. In high wind conditions, “eucalyptus bark can travel in the air like a bird,” as far as 10 miles. 

“That’s the way the fires advance,” he says. “We’ve been lucky for 20 years. But think of the biomass that’s been created.”

“A lot of newcomers since the fire,” he adds, “don’t understand how serious it is.”

Steven Finacom works in Capital Projects. He watched the 1991 fire from the roof of his southeast-Berkeley home. In 1998 he curated an exhibit on, and wrote about, the 75th anniversary of the Berkeley wildfire of 1923.