From the archives: ‘INFERNO ENGULFS HILLS: Wilson calls emergency in 6-alarm blaze’

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The Daily Californian Archives/File

This article was originally published in the Oct. 21, 1991, issue of The Daily Californian.

By Ian Finseth and Virginia Matzek
Staff Writers

A devastating fire consumed much of the Berkeley and Oakland hills yesterday, injuring at least 48 people, destroying hundreds of homes and prompting Gov. Pete Wilson to declare a state of emergency in Alameda County.

As many as 12 people reportedly died in the fire, but the fatalities could not be confirmed as of 11 p.m.

The six-alarm inferno started at about 11 a.m. in the grass above the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24. As of 1 p.m., the fire had not been contained, said Berkeley Police Lt. Michel de Latour.

Unusually high winds, at times gusting to 40 mph, fanned the flames, which quickly spread through the hills. The fire sent a plume of thick smoke into the sky, blotting out the sun and dropping ash as far away as San Francisco.

Residents were evacuated from a swath of land extending from Park Boulevard in Oakland to Derby Street in Berkeley and from College Avenue to the ridge of the East Bay hills.

Local hospitals were put on red alert a few hours after the blaze began. Alta Bates-Herrick Hospital reported 29 injuries, while Merritt reported 14 and Highland reported five.

Most injuries were related to smoke inhalation, although there were five burn cases.

Fire damage was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as 1,500 acres of the choicest real estate in California went up in smoke.

At 7:30 p.m., Gov. Wilson declared a state of emergency in Alameda County, freeing National Guard units to battle the conflagration.

California Assemblymember Tom Bates said Berkeley and Oakland will also appeal to the federal government for emergency status.

Wilson, who arrived in Oakland late last night, will tour the burned areas today by helicopter. He visited an evacuation center at Willard Junior High School last night.

“This is probably the worst residential fire in California history,” Wilson said.

Firefighters from numerous cities around the Bay Area, the California Department of Forestry and the U.S. Army and Navy assisted in the effort.

About 180 fire engines and 700 personnel converged on the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. With the state of emergency in effect, thousands more firefighters can be called in from other states and regions if needed.

The California Conservation Corps fought the flames from helicopters and planes, dropping water and boron, a chemical fire retardant, on the blaze.

Fire departments reported that the fire might not be totally extinguished for two or three days.

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The Daily Californian Archives/Files

Chaos and confusion

Many speculated that the fire was an outgrowth of a smaller brushfire that burned Saturday on a hill above the tunnel.

Berkeley police said the Saturday fire was put out by 3 p.m., and although the cause of yesterday’s fire is still unknown, they did not rule out a connection between the two blazes.

“The fire (yesterday) was basically never in control,” said Berkeley Police Lt. Pat Phelps. “It whipped up the hill so fast, spread north and south, that it became an immediate crisis.”

Cars clogged the narrow streets around Berkeley and Oakland as some people left the hills while others drove in to get a closer look.

Thousands of people were evacuated from the Claremont Hotel, from a UC Berkeley residence hall, from 18 fraternities and from residential areas east of Highway 13.

The American Red Cross set up five evacuation centers for residents fleeing the flames, including three at local schools, providing shelter to about 800 people.

Confusion reigned as distraught evacuees tried to locate their friends and families.

“I haven’t seen my husband since this morning,” said Leslie Kean, who had been visiting evacuation centers for hours in search of her husband and other guests evacuated from the Claremont Hotel.

“Why didn’t they send everyone to one center? I just don’t understand why there is no information,” she said.

Johnny Roland of 5822 Buena Vista Ave. drove home through thick black smoke to locate his wife and children, only to find them gone and his house engulfed in flames.

“I’ve got to find my wife and baby,” he said, getting back into his car to make a search of the centers.

Onlookers, some equipped with binoculars and cameras, lined the streets to watch the fire.

Many bystanders pitched in to help, directing traffic, organizing evacuees and passing on what little information they had.

During the early stages of the blaze, firefighters welcomed volunteers, who dragged heavy water hoses up winding streets in a seemingly futile attempt to save houses.

“We just can’t tackle it. It’s too big of a fire,” shouted Oakland firefighter Ken Kumeo as he aimed a fire hose at a house on Buena Vista Avenue.

James Thomas of Oakland said he saw the fire and came up to help.

Stripping to the waist, he tied his shirt around his face to block the choking smoke and joined several other men in hauling a fire hose to an endangered house.

“I ain’t afraid. We’re not going to get burned,” Thomas said, his words punctuated by a tree exploding into flames behind the house.

Inside the inferno

Beside the wind, the worst culprits in spreading the fire were eucalyptus trees, which contain high quantities of oil in the wood and often explode into a shower of sparks when burning.

Five years of drought and a weekend of hot, dry weather contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

Witnesses to the fire could also hear occasional booms as electrical transformers exploded, causing power shortages throughout the area.

The Daily Californian Archives/File

The Daily Californian Archives/File

The devastation wreaked by the inferno was visually stunning. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to smoking rubble, with only chimneys standing to mark where homes had once stood.

People trying to get closer to the fire — to help, to salvage possessions from their houses or to rubberneck — were driven back by flying hot ashes and the fire’s intense heat, which at times reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many residents hosed down their roofs and yards up to the last minute, then escaped through the thick smoke to waiting cars.

As the fire approached his landmark home, the Guy Hyde Chick house, art collector Foster Goldstrom tossed heirlooms and precious objets d’art out the windows into a friend’s waiting arms.

Others hosed down the roof and yard of the house, designed by Bernard Maybeck in 1914, as an orange wall of fire approached from the east. Goldstrom left with a last armful of mementos as flames licked at the edge of his driveway and cinders fell from the sky.

“I guess if the wind changes dramatically and starts blowing east, there’s a slight chance (the house will survive),” Goldstrom said doubtfully.

“It’s all just physical possessions,” he said. “There’s nothing here that’s irreplaceable.”

At least one person said the fire department’s initial response was too slow.

“As soon as the wind picked up, they should have had people out there,” said Andy Odden of Bristol Street in the Berkeley hills. “I saw one fireman and he was working on one spot.”

Odden said he came up with a friend to help fight the fire as soon as it started, then ran 100 yards down to his house, which was framed by flames. He escaped with only his clothes.

As far west as College Avenue, residents weren’t taking chances with the still-distant flames. In Rockridge, Andre Simic loaded family photos and business records into the trunk of his car before hosing down his roof and yard.

“I don’t think it’s really necessary this far away,” said Simic, “but why take chances?”

Disruption of services

The California Highway Patrol reported that Highway 13, Highway 24 between its junction with Interstate 980 and Lafayette, and the

Caldecott Tunnel were closed, and that Interstate 580 between 238 and 24 might close by this morning. The CHP gave no estimate as to when these roads might reopen.

About 8,500 customers lost power due to burned out lines, said Pacific Gas & Electric spokesperson Harry Arnott.

The Rockridge and Orinda BART stations have suspended services indefinitely until the fire is under control. An emergency shuttle service is operating between the Bay Fair BART station and Walnut Creek.

Telephone lines into Berkeley and Oakland were temporarily jammed with a flood of calls in the early afternoon. Pacific Bells was blocking half of all calls coming into the Bay Area.

The Berkeley Unified School District, UC Berkeley, College Prep School in Oakland and the Orinda school district canceled today’s classes.

All staff of the Berkeley district were asked to report to their schools, except those of John Muir Elementary, who were asked to report to report to Emerson school.

Imran Ghori, Jennifer Wedel, Sylvia Tan, Marle Chen, Deborah Beccue and Dion Nissenbaum of The Daily Californian staff contributed to this report.

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