On the morning of October 20, 1991, towering clouds of black smoke blocked out the sun as “diablo winds” whipped flames hot enough to melt gold throughout the hills above Oakland and Berkeley. By the end of that day, 25 people were dead and more than 3000 homes lay in ashes and charred rubble, little remaining but chimneys and the blackened skeletons of trees. Nearly 30 years later, as California suffers its most widespread wildfire season in living memory, this episode looks back at the inferno that gave us a terrifying glimpse of the future we’re now living through.
Former East Bay Regional Park District firefighter Bill Nichols on Grizzly Peak Blvd, above the canyon where he battled one of the deadliest fires in California history. [Photo: Liam O’Donoghue]
Retired East Bay Regional Parks Department firefighter Bill Nichols provides a first-hand account of battling the blaze and the lessons he learned that day that shaped the rest of his career.
Risa Nye, author of the memoir “ There Was a Fire Here,” discusses how she coped with watching her entire neighborhood burn down, including her home and all her family’s possessions, and explains how she navigated the lengthy recovery process. Listen now: Apple / SoundCloud / Spotify.
“With unbelievable speed, fire reared up from the grass like some angry creature and began to roar… Within 15 minutes, 100 acres had become a voracious wall of hellfire,” according to a 1991 Oakland Tribune article by Kevin Fagan. [Image courtesy of California Office of Emergency Services]
This image of the Claremont Hotel circa 1915 reveals how dramatically different the hills looked a century ago. Prior to colonization, Ohlone people set annual fires to maintain a grassy ecosystem. Those native grasses have since been replaced by non-native trees, such as the highly flammable blue gum eucalyptus.
Reading through survivors’ accounts, the most commonly used term to describe what the neighborhood looked like after the fire was “moonscape.” [Image courtesy of California Office of Emergency Services]
“I thought I was going to be sick,” Risa Nye said, after returning to Hermosa Ave, to see what was left of her home. [Image courtesy of Risa Nye]
Bill Nichols is still haunted by what he saw during that chaotic day on October 20, 1991. “From the bottom of my heart, I apologize to the people who lost their homes and the people who died up here,” he told me as we looked down upon the dozens of rebuilt houses. [Image courtesy of California Office of Emergency Services]
In the wake of the fire, many blamed budget cuts prompted by Prop. 13 for hobbling Oakland’s Fire Department. Several stations closed and the department shrank by more than 100 firefighters due to reduced property tax revenues. [Image courtesy of California Office of Emergency Services]
This illustration by AR Cribbins was inspired by a story in the book “ There was a Fire Here” about the unexpected return of daffodils in front of Risa Nye’s home.
After their Upper Rockridge home burned, Risa Nye and her family (seen here in 1993) decided to rebuild on the same property. “We love this community… where else would we go?” To hear Risa’s advice to survivors of California’s more recent wildfires, listen to the new episode. [Image courtesy of Risa Nye]
Bill Nichols remembers staying late into the night to help prevent this home on Buckingham Blvd from burning. It was one of the few houses in the area above Hiller Highlands to withstand the flames. [Photo: Liam O’Donoghue]
More than a dozen significant fires have ripped through the Berkeley/Oakland hills over the past century, including major blazes in 1923 and 1970. Some homes that had been destroyed by previous fires burned again in 1991.
The Parkwoods complex, seen here on a smoky day in September 2020, needed to be completely rebuilt after the 1991 fire leveled the community. Note the Pampas grasses in the foreground, which are listed among the “flammable plants to avoid” on a display at the Firestorm Memorial Garden, located just down the hill. [Photo: Liam O’Donoghue]
Many of the plants listed on this display near the entrance to the Hiller Highlands neighborhood are still commonly found throughout the East Bay hills.
Many preventative measures, such as the banning of wood shake shingles and widening of roads, were enacted following the 1991 fire. However, the fire danger in this area remains high due to many factors, such as increasing temperatures, strong seasonal winds and the buildup of dry undergrowth in steep canyons. [Photo: Liam O’Donoghue]
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