It was originally called the Tunnel Fire, because it broke out near the Caldecott Tunnel, but over the years it’s become better known as the Oakland Hills Firestorm, or the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm, since the inferno didn’t respect city limits.
Its cause was a grass fire that had broken out thirty years ago today, October 19, 1991, sending a plume of smoke up over the hills. It was burning just northeast of where Highways 24 and 13 intersect, in the Berkeley hills. Firefighters believed they had fully extinguished that fire, but embers remained, and as Diablo winds blew out of the east and over the hills, a much larger fire erupted on Sunday, October 20 that became an intense firestorm.
The fire burned so hot and so quickly, it was estimated that a house was catching fire every 11 seconds. A total of 3,500 homes would end up destroyed, marking one of the most destructive fires in California history — it held the title of most destructive for 26 years, until the Tubbs Fire came along, and then the 2018 Camp Fire, each of which burned thousands more homes. And it remains among the deadliest wildfires in state history, with 25 people killed — though the Camp Fire would eclipse it there too.
The eerie footage below shows the vide of the massive smoke plume as seen from San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
And this is raw footage from KTVU from the edge of the fire that afternoon:
Local writer Frances Dinkelspiel writes her own remembrance on Berkeleyside of losing her home in the Berkeley hills that day. She and her husband, pregnant with their first child, were at brunch at Zuni Cafe with their parents the morning of the fire, and emerged from the restaurant to see the smoke rising over the Bay.
We had raced back from San Francisco as soon as we had seen the huge plume of smoke billowing above the East Bay hills, desperate to reach our house and our cat. We couldn’t get anywhere close. After we parked on Ashby, Gary told me he was going to try and reach our home on Alvarado Road, more than 2 miles away, on foot if necessary. The thought of leaving our cat Mookie Wilson Wayne to die on his own was too painful to consider.
Ultimately, their home did burn, and the cat was lost.
Dinkelspiel’s husband had been turned away as he reached the bottom of their street on foot, with a firefighter saying, “Turn back. It’s so hot up there that we can’t even bear it and we are wearing fire gear.” He later hiked up to a vantage point in the hills, and called Dinkelspiel, who had returned to her parents’ home in San Francisco. “I watched our house burn down,” he told her tearfully. “It took about a minute. It’s all gone.”
They would ultimately rebuild, and they remain in their house, but worries about the next fire in the densely populated hills — which are both rich with tinder and covered with twisting roads that make easy escapes potentially impossible. (For this reason, the Berkeley Fire Department recently warned hills residents that when fire danger is especially high, pre-emptive evacuations will occur.)
This was another period of great destruction in the Bay Area and wariness of the forces of nature. The Oakland Hills Firestorm happened just two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, which also happened in October.
Residents would ultimately also be reminded that a similar fire that had started in the chaparral of the Berkeley hills had burned down into the city of Berkeley and caused mass destruction 68 years earlier, in September 1923. That fire destroyed 584 homes in the hills above the UC Berkeley campus.
While this year’s fire season has been miserable and long, like all of them have the last four years (and knock on wood we can’t call it over just yet), the Bay Area has been largely spared this year, thankfully. But more fires like this one, and the Tubbs Fire four years ago, are likely to erupt in the future at the border of wildlands and urban areas. Hopefully, with each new blaze there’s more knowledge and foresight that will inform the next disaster, and save lives down the line.
We’ll leave you with a happier tale: This is a photo of Kristine Barrett-Davis and her husband Mark holding their pet cat Disney, standing in front of their Oakland hills house that was in the process of being rebuilt in 1992, after it burned down in 1991. Disney became separated from the couple during the firestorm, but she was found 14 months later by a lost pet hotline volunteer.
Top image: Photo by Mark Downey Lucid Images/Corbis via Getty Images