I think one of the scariest disasters that happened during my life within the region I live in was the Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991. I can still remember the events as if they happened recently.
I remember that my sister, mom, and I were out shopping. We were driving somewhere near San Leandro and looked out towards the Oakland hills. You could see the smoke lining the sky. At that time, we had no clue what was going on.
When I got home, I turned on the news. There was the fire we saw earlier in the day. Only it was no ordinary house fire. A grass fire that had been extinguished on the 19th reignited on the morning of the 20th. It was a hot, dry, windy October day and the fire quickly swept through neighborhoods in Oakland, Berkeley, and beyond.
We sat glued to the TV terrified at the events. The fire swept from one neighborhood to the next. People were trapped. Firefighters could get their trucks through narrow streets with trees blocking the way. Homeowners stood alone trying to save their homes with water from a garden house. And, we all watched and waited.
I remember when we got the phone call from my brother. The fire was approaching the Claremont Hotel. He was out of town with his girlfriend. Her apartment was a couple blocks from the Claremont. The fire fighters were making an huge effort to stop the fire at the historic hotel. If they lost that battle, the neighboring streets would probably go as well. If necessary, my sister and I would head out there to save her cats. We waited by the phone in case we were needed.
In the end, another relative who lived closer got over there to save the cats. The fire fighters drew their battles lines–and they won. They stopped the approaching fire before it destroyed the hotel and anything beyond it.
The fire was contained on the 23rd. 23 people died including a firefighter and police officer, 150 were injured. The fire swept through 1520 acres. 3,354 houses were destroyed and 437 apartment type buildings went up in flames.
I remember going up several weeks later to see the damage. A couple of family members had gone out for lunch and we decided to drive through. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an eerie sight. Homes were leveled to the ground with barely distinguishable cars still parked in the garage. Some homes still stood but the contents were ruins. Even harder to understand was seeing house after house completely gone and then a house right in the middle completely untouched. There was no rhyme or reason to it. It is a sight I will never forget.
I think to the times that must have affected my ancestors. The 1906 earthquake and fire to be sure. The wars, the depression, too. The Oakland Hills Firestorm will stand out as one of those events for me. Though we were not in danger where I lived, I can still remember that anxiety and fear. I don’t think I can ever forget it.
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com