Oakland History Room exhibit highlights public documents, personal memories of Oakland hills fire
on September 1, 2011
A grassfire thought to have been extinguished by firefighters the previous day reignited on October 20, 1991, becoming the worst fire in California’s history. High winds allowed the flames to spread rapidly. More than 1,000 firefighters were called to battle the blaze. Twenty-five people were killed, including a family of five that died trying to escape a house fire, and a number of people who abandoned their cars too late died while trying to escape their neighborhoods.
In the end, 3,810 homes were destroyed, about 2,000 vehicles were burned, 4,970 insurance policies were involved, and 380 consumer complaints were filed alleging claims adjustment abuse. These are facts that make “Remembering and Rebuilding: A Commemoration of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm” different from other exhibits being held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Oakland hills firestorm this year.
The Oakland History Room’s exhibit will display more than 40 historic items related to the fire on the second floor of Oakland’s Main Library from September 1 to November 30. The exhibit includes donated cassettes of the Oakland’s Fire Department dispatches, aerial maps of Oakland before and after the fire, and public records of statistics and research related to the fire. Additionally, a document produced by the Golden Gate Chapter of the society of Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters titled “Déjà vu: Lessons Relearned from the Oakland-Berkeley Hills Firestorm of 1991” provides information on local governments’ failures to learn from previous fires in Berkeley and the Oakland Hills.
“The documents for sure make us different,” says Dorothy Lazard, an Oakland History Room librarian. “Most of our exhibits are not simply photos. We have letters, newspapers, and personal narratives recalling what it was like.”
The exhibit also showcases residents’ responses to the fire, including copies of the Phoenix Journal: Renewal and Rebuilding in the East Bay Hills, a now-defunct publication by and for fire survivors. The journal published features about merchants affected by the fire, stories about animals being found, and an article about fire survivors’ dreams being studied by a leading therapist.
The display also includes personal documents, like a letter by an unidentified writer which details how ordinary the “blue-sky October” day seemed before disaster struck. “The wind was funny, though,” the letter says. “It was coming from inland instead of the bay. And it was hot. I realized the sunlight had changed. It looked muted, the way it had during the eclipse.”
A poem by Judith and Garry Fidrick about the loss of their home is also on display. “It was our oasis—a shelter from the world—a safe place to retreat on stormy days,” the poem reads. “Steven and Heather were born there. Now barren, desolate, a graveyard of lost dreams laid to rest by an inferno we do not comprehend. Dante’s hell was never this. It was our home.”
A number of large photos will also be showcased. One captures the hills fire nearing Oakland’s historic Claremont Hotel Club & Spa, which many residents feared would catch on fire. Another shows an example of the thousands of burnt cars left on Oakland hill streets, and others show the flammable Eucalyptus trees.
“All materials from our collection have been donated,” says Lazard. “Anything the public gives us is considered a gift.”
A large part of the exhibit focuses on documents showing the efforts to rebuild as well as controversy following the firestorm as government officials and members of the public weighed questions like: How should people rebuild? What type of materials should they use? Should the government change the parameters for how much clearing space should be required around a house?
Widening the streets was another controversial discussion, recalls Oakland History Room supervising librarian Kathleen diGiovanni. “Fire trucks couldn’t get up windy roads,” she says. “The thought was to widen the roads, but they have not done that enough.”
The librarians also have their own recollections of the firestorm. “Those [Eucalyptus] trees are still up there despite how big that fire was,” says Lazard. “They were like matchsticks that day. I was living in Albany. I had an oblique view of what was going on. It looked like downtown Berkeley was on fire.”
“My first thought was something blew up,” she continues. “We could hear things blowing up. I evacuated a friend from 49th and Shafter, which is nowhere near the fire. Pages of burning books were flying into her yard.”
An opening reception will be held on Thursday, September 15 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Oakland History Room at 125 14th Street. “We don’t know how many people to expect for the exhibit,” Lazar says, “but it will allow everyone to see what the hills were like years before and months after the fire.”
For more information about the Oakland History Room, go here.
Lead image: Cars with wheels burned away crowded Oakland hill streets after the firestorm. All photos courtesy: Oakland History Room. Slideshow compiled by Yirmeyah Beckles.
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