Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Oakland Hills Fire 24 Years Ago Today; A Personal Perspective

WON'T FORGET --24 years ago today--it was a Sunday Morning. It began like most October mornings but this day was different. A very unnerving autumn wind gusted out of sight in the Oakland Hills. It was not your normal wind. I had some misgivings right away.

For one, in mid morning at 10 I remember going outside (near the base of the Mormon Temple near Hwy. 13 --the Warren Freeway) and feeling the heat. It was brutal and dry heat, the sort of heat we're accustomed to in October, Bay Area summer.

I looked to the northeast of the sky--down near lower Montclair and saw the first hue of black smoke and heard a lot of fire engines. Instinctively I immediately put KGO Radio on (they were useful back then) and knew something was amiss when they broke into the 49ers pregame show. Later on the gravity of the Oakland Hills fire would be proof positive across the bay: embers from the blaze blew all the way to Candlestick Park and black smoke could soon be seen all over the entire Bay Area.

What would become sort of hell on Earth began in earnest: the fire was beginning to attack full frontal force. The sky looked like the surface of pictures of Jupiter. Cars were fleeing Montclair where I was near Mountain Blvd. The Caldecott tunnel was a no man's land. Sirens could be heard from all parts of the city. The acrid odor of smoke permeated the hills and a dread could be seen on everyone's faces. We all knew this was bad, just how bad remained to be seen. I was afraid. Not that I was personally in any danger , just that I knew this was going to be an historic day--all for the wrong reasons.

I mentioned the sky. I'll never forget how it looked. Like a scene from a movie. I mentioned Jupiter. You can add the caveat of a sky that had doomsday written all over it: red and orange hues everywhere. And the fire was still going even as dusk was looming.

News trucks lined almost all of Rockridge. The site of the Claremont Hotel sticking out from the ball of fire and smoke is an image that can't escape the mind. How the hell the Claremont survived I have no clue but it was amazing. A late sign of optimism amid the ruins of which they're were plenty.

Broadway Terrace was a mess. So too was the Caldecott area near Lake Temescal which the Oakland Fire Dept and assisting out-of-town fire fighters used as a staging ground to dump water over the blaze which was so powerful it burned out of sight. Never forget it.

As dusk was nearing a smidgen of cooler air was felt. The fire was beginning to lose its oxygen --thank God.

News crews live shots up and down Broadway Terrace. KTVU's Betty Ann Bruno, like thousands of others, lost her home in Upper Rockridge. We didn't know at the time 24 people had lost their lives.

October 20, 1991--We will never forget.


  1. Beautiful building in that picture. What is it? Did we lose it in the fire?

  2. No, its still there. A NBA team stayed there not to long ago and said they were scared by ghosts.

  3. Its the Claremont Hotel on Broadway Terrace.

    1. It's amazing the architecture they have in that city. It's too bad what became of the city later on.

    2. The historic hotel resides at the foot of Claremont Canyon in the Berkeley foothills. Although the main building is located entirely in Oakland (but not on Broadway Terrace), a portion of the property--which includes the spa, the gardens, and parking area--falls within the city limits of Berkeley. The resort's official mailing address remains 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley CA 94705.

      Involvement of both Oakland and Berkeley property resulted in the "East Bay Hills Fire" title assigned by the U.S. Fire Administration to 130-page Technical Report USFA-TR-060/October 1991.

  4. I was in Oakland that night for a concert at the Henry J. After it ended we were walking back and stood on a bridge in front of Lake Merritt and just watched the scene for half an hour. I'll never forget it.

  5. Remember it well. My mom went down to the village (Montclair) to grab supplies and police/fire wouldn't let her back up the hill. She knew all the back routs and got back to our family home at Snake and Colton to gather my dad and the animals, then came to Walnut Creek to stay with me at my house as they evacuated the area.

    Fire missed up closely but many people I knew lost heir house including my friends, the Seymore's on Grizzly Peak who own Colonial Donuts and also lost their house back in the '70's fire as well.

    It's a shame what Oakland city planners allowed to go back in, though. Giant stucco McMansions that are as ugly as can be. The hills and view will never be the same.

  6. Smokey the BungholeOctober 20, 2015 at 6:50 PM

    Great article, Rich...that reminds me, time to start a campfire.

  7. I remember the Saturday before. #8 Cal was playing #1 Washington (with Napolean Kauffman). The fire started to blaze with ash falling into our back yard. The fire choppers were filling up at Lake Merritt and fly right over our house. People we knew lost their homes. It was crazy. The fact that the fire happened just two short years after Loma Prieta had some feeling the Bay Area was cursed.

  8. I was on my second day at my first big, real job (an insurance company). Answered a call from a customer calling in with their claim for the loss of their Oakland Hills home. This same home was a replacement...for their previous one...red-tagged and destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.

    I remember my eyes tearing up as I listened to them before connecting them to our claims department.

    One of those "I have no idea what to say" times; so I just listened.

    I think about them every anniversary of both the quake and the fires, and hope they found a new, wonderful home that will never be a target of natural or any disaster.

  9. I was watching a live feed on KTVU in the evening. You could see the home behind him catch fire with a small blaze at one corner, and then over the 2 or 3 minutes of the feed, watch the fire spread. You knew that house was a gonner. Watching the house go from standing and secure to an inferno right behind the reporter brought the reality of the fire's destruction home.

  10. As I pretend I didn't see the awfully tasteless, poorly timed, and off-putting attempt at sarcasm let alone humor by the 6:50 post (I do know how to laugh, I just don't do it toward weak jibes), wasn't the fire started above the 13-24 interchange because of a clueless guy leaving a grill on? Someone refresh me on its exact origins.

  11. I was listening to the two-way scanner to get an idea of what the fire crews were saying. The voices I was hearing were really scared. I kept hearing crews that had no water and they were on dead end streets with no way out. They said the winds were like something they had never seen before. They wanted to save houses, but many had to abandon their equipment and flee just to save themselves.

  12. @9.51 The story I heard was there was a fire the day before that firefighters thought they'd extinguished and it turned out they hadn't. I was taking a class in the city that day and during breaks we'd go outside & listen to the coverage on KGO. All but a tiny slice of the sky was covered in smoke. I lived in Fremont then & got a ride home with someone traveling along 580. The flames along 580 were about 20-25 feet high. An alternatingly spectacular & horrifying sight.

  13. Had a friend who was at the 49er game that day, he had one of those little portable TV's...as he saw smoke rising in the Oakland/Berkeley hills he watched his little TV and saw his home at Parkwoods going up in flames...