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Firestorm Memorial Garden

Oakland hills fire memorial vandalized

on October 8, 2010

Vandals sawed off eight branches of a commemorative sculpture in Oakland’s Firestorm Memorial Garden Thursday. The bronze monument, dedicated to the victims and survivors of the worst fire in Bay Area history—the Oakland hills fire of October 20, 1991—symbolized the eucalyptus trees that were decimated by the fire but would blossom again years later.

The sculpture’s defacing comes less than two weeks before the 19th anniversary of the wind-driven firestorm that killed 25 people, incinerated nearly 3,500 homes and caused billions of dollars in damage.

“This is kind of like a kick in the stomach,” said Gordon Piper, chair of the Oakland Landscape Committee, who raised the funds to construct the garden 17 years ago. “This is like dancing on the graves of the fire victims,” he said, staring at the amputated limbs of the monument he’s cared for since its dedication in 1994.

Piper’s home was among the thousands destroyed. Since that time, he has also overseen the development of another memorial to the blaze—the Gateway Garden and Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center, a memorial pavilion created to teach vegetation management and fire safety. It is located off of Highway 24 near the Caldecott Tunnel.

On Thursday morning, Piper found that eight of the sculpture’s 46 bronze branches had been sawed off—seven were gone and the eighth branch was lying on the gravel immediately in front of the metal tribute. He said he also found the marks of what looked like heavy equipment that had been brought in and sloppy saw marks on the memorial itself where the branches had been severed.

Piper said he had previously noticed on Tuesday that four of the branches had been bent.  On Wednesday, he found two more branches disfigured and filed a police report online, he said.

The reason for the theft remains unclear, but Piper suspects that the thieves may have been looking to resell the metal branches. “There is very little value in the metal for selling it for scrap, but the cost of what it’ll take to replace it is really high,” he said.

Thursday’s vandalism wasn’t the first time someone damaged the sculpture on the hillside garden at the crest of Tunnel Road and Highway 13. Three years ago, Piper was forced to replace 25 stainless plaques—one for each of the victims of the Oakland fire—flanking the bronze sculpture, just beyond the gravel floor and drift roses surrounding it.

Piper had adopted security precautions to protect the memorial including emergency lighting to illuminate the area at night, and security cameras to monitor attempts at marring the sculpture. However, vandals had knocked the cameras down years prior to Thursday’s theft.

“It made me feel kind of sick,” said Gail Fredell, the artist who designed the memorial, after hearing the news. Her works include benches for the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park and 110 chairs and an altar for Stanford University’s Memorial Chapel. “It’s also upsetting that people are so desperate, so detached, that this is the type of activity that people are reduced to.”

The cost to fix the damage to the sculpture, which Fredell said was created on a budget of $25,000, is still unknown, but Piper wants to repair the memorial. “I’m determined to do what I can to restore the sculpture and further protect it and enhance security for the garden,” said Piper. “If I don’t get enough money I’ll do what I can.”

“I believe that people will respond and help,” he added.

The Oakland Landscape Committee is asking the public for donations that will be used to install new custom made branches. For more information, people are asked to call the Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation at (510) 465-1850.

Image: Firestorm Memorial Garden has been the target of numerous acts of vandalism, including the theft of the 25 plaques honoring victims of the Oakland hills fire. The most recent vandalism occurred on Thursday, with the theft of some of the sculpture’s bronze “branches.”

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