Fire’s legacy seared into memory 20 years later

Richard Misrach/Courtesy

If you ask Howard Matis what he was wearing 20 years ago Thursday, he will answer without a trace of doubt or hesitation — a soccer uniform.

For Matis, the day started off like any other Sunday: He drove home from a canceled soccer game in San Lorenzo, not knowing that a growing East Bay fire would soon engulf his Berkeley home and put him and his son in a life-or-death struggle to reach safety. With a stroke of luck and some clever thinking, Matis made it down the hill with only first-degree burns. He had nothing in his possession except the clothes on his back.

It was a dry Sunday morning, with temperatures reaching 92 degrees Fahrenheit. A smaller fire had broken out on the end slope of Temescal Canyon the day before, though the affected area had been contained and was being monitored for hot spots by the Berkeley, Oakland and neighboring fire departments. Diablo winds blew in at 20 mph — with gusts up to 50 mph — aggravating already ripe conditions: five years of drought, several rainless months, along with reduced efforts to control vegetation due to budget limitations.

At first, Matis was not too worried about any potential fire danger, though he saw smoke nearby. He and his wife had stayed to protect their property, but as the fire came closer and closer, they abandoned their efforts and evacuated, each taking one of their sons in two separate cars. Soon after parting, Matis found out, to his dismay, that the route down the hill was blocked by traffic.

Finding himself stuck in a line of halted cars, Matis made the quick decision to ditch his vehicle and climb into the back of a pickup truck with his son and several other evacuees — a move that saved their lives, as a wall of flames chased after them from behind.

“I shouted ‘drive,’ and (the driver) drove through a very narrow road, through the flames … It must have only lasted a few seconds, but she drove past the flames and we were safe,” he recalled. “I wasn’t terrified. You couldn’t be — you were trying to save your life.”

In the aftermath of the East Bay Hills Fire, which ravaged parts of Oakland and Berkeley until it was declared under control on Oct. 22, 1991, 1,520 acres were burned and 3,469 living dwellings were destroyed, causing more than $1 billion in damage, according to a city of Berkeley report. The fire left 25 people dead, 150 injured and 5,000 people homeless.

Berkeley Fire Chief Debra Pryor, who was at the time of the fire a newly promoted fire lieutenant, said the scene was “chaotic.” It was estimated that a structure burned down every 11 seconds at the peak of the blaze, and the fire force was overwhelmed, Pryor said.

Emergency preparedness activist Jonathan Goodwin, who facilitated a forum last week on lessons learned from the fire, said the fire agencies were unprepared to combat the blazing inferno because there had not been a fire this big since 1923, when a fire destroyed nearly 600 homes in the Berkeley area.

“The resources kept coming in … but they didn’t have an overall management structure, in part because they didn’t have a communications structure,” Goodwin said.

Even though the mutual aid effort was the largest ever undertaken in the state of California at the time — 440 engine companies and 1,500 fire personnel were on duty — 790 homes still burned in the first hour alone.

Over the last 10 years, mutual response area agreements have been established between most of the members agencies of the Hills Emergency Forum, a local interjurisdictional council created in the few years following the fire. The forum seeks to provide a regional approach to fire prevention, preparedness and suppression in the Oakland-Berkeley Hills. Interagency drills that emphasize communication in case of an emergency are held each year.

For those who lost their homes and loved ones, the days and months that followed the fire were just as devastating as the fire itself. What had once been someone’s home had overnight been reduced to ash and rubble. Though insurance could cover monetary losses, some things were irreplaceable.

Berkeley City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak remembered walking through the area after the fires died down, thinking the scene looked like a war zone.

“There were remnants — a porcelain bathtub or refrigerator,” he said. “Basically just ash and foundation and the occasional gas line that was still burning.”

Image Courtesy: Richard Misrach, Bay Area photographer

Wozniak said people sifted through the ashes hoping to find their mementos — family heirlooms or valuable jewelry with sentimental value — though most had been distorted by the heat.

Berkeley resident David Kessler lost his house and all his possessions to the fire, but that loss is not what he dwells on 20 years later.

“I would do anything to bring back those 25 people,” Kessler said. “Ultimately, that’s the only thing that matters.”

For many, the memories from the day will always continue to linger.

The Oakland Museum of California and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive have begun exhibiting photographs of the fire taken by Bay Area photographer Richard Misrach. Survivors and guests of the museums are welcomed to share their thoughts in an elegy book.

Though commemoration efforts focus on remembering the past, Pryor and Goodwin said residents should also look to the future and take this as a lesson. They urge citizens to stay vigilant and remember that a natural disaster could and may happen at anytime, especially in this kind of neighborhood.

“As we reflect on these events, we also want to remember our responsibility as residents and homeowners to constantly keep our properties clear from vegetation — that’s really important from a fire standpoint,” Pryor said.

As for Matis, this 20-year commemoration is cathartic: It is a time to scatter the ashes of the past, he said. Though Matis rebuilt his house and recovered from his injuries, it was not until several years later that he felt like life began to normalize again.

“(This anniversary) brings up memories, but I’m using this to bury them,” he said. “For these 20 years, it’s time to end it. Twenty years — it’s time to say it’s done, and it’s time to move on.”