Oakland Hills Fire Anniversary

October 20, 1991 began…well…strangely.

I was in a recently rented apartment with my college roommate and her sister. We awoke late and I wanted to cook some breakfast before the football game. I had planned a glorious brunch, football, and a day of studying. I have no idea what my roommate and her sister planned because, though we had roomed together in the dorms and moved in together for our sophomore year, we didn’t hang out much. We didn’t talk much. We each bought our own groceries and cleaned our own halves of the apartment and just sort of coexisted.

Starting around 10:30 am I heard sirens. Weird, since we lived at the liminal space between an open, grassy area and a freeway. We were surrounded by a horseshoe of trees and grasses, bounded by a concrete tunnel thought the hill at one side, and a freeway along the other. There weren’t many houses nearby, so the sirens were strange.

So were the popping sounds of cars backfiring. I didn’t understand those. Lots of backfires in the tunnel this morning, I thought, as I looked out the window. The sky was black with smoke.

Hmmm. Someone’s barbequeing at 10am? Must be tailgating for the game I thought.

Obviously one of the most stupid humans ever to live, I ignored the sirens and the popping sounds of eucalyptus trees exploding in the fire, and I poached egg whites in a cheddar cheese sauce. Because eggs and sourdough need cheese. It’s the law.

At some point, my roommate’s sister looked out the living room window onto the balcony and asked aloud what was going on. The sky was still a swirling black. And as we looked north along the dry hillside that constituted our view, we saw flames. We ran into my bedroom, which was further along the hill. By the time we got there, the whole hill was ablaze and we could feel the heat through the window.

Get dressed, I said.

They did. I stayed and stared. Bad move.

I grabbed my purse and slipped on sandals. We walked out into the common hallway and saw our neighbors similarly transfixed by the view out their balcony window. I heard them say, “As long as it doesn’t catch that tree, we’ll be fine.” We blew past and went toward the elevator.

In case of fire use stairs not elevator, I intoned. We pushed down the stairs and my roommate shoved open the stairwell door into the garage. The smoke was so thick we gagged, and I pulled the door closed. My roommate had decided to take her scooter to safety. Her sister and I decided to take the other stairs.

We went upstairs again and ran through the halls to the fire escape. When I opened the door we could see the trees, planted to decorate the fire escape, were all ablaze. I pulled the door closed and dug through my purse. I handed my roommate’s sister a pair of sunglasses.

Put these on in case there are flying embers, I said.

[Allow me to pause and say I know I’m ludicrous. But this is what happened and you can’t be a rule-following, practical, overstuffed-purse-toting, dork of a college student without getting some goddamned props 20 years later for keeping your roommate’s sister’s eyes (and your own) safe from burning embers. Spare sunglasses. Write that down.]

We hurried down the hot stairs and reached the bottom. I thought I was going to be relieved. Firefighters. Phew. That means everything’s okay, right?

KTVU screen grab of our apartment complex

He had his hose trained on the hillside, and he looked terrified. I have never seen a professional look more like a frightened child in my life. I knew we were definitely not okay. So much for reassuring us. He was too busy trying to stay alive. (See the 11:30-11:45 am timestamp here where the firefighters abandon their positions right about now).

We ran as far as we could but had to stop at the freeway. There was a long line of cars trying to get out to the freeway, but some of them were on fire. We were confused. My roommate met us here, explaining she couldn’t get her scooter out. We all decided to hitchhike.


If I get in a car with a stranger, my mother will kill me.

Some very nice people drove us through Oakland. I remember only a few specifics: The sun was red. Everyone was going to church. The traffic was terrible. I will never in my life forget how surreal it felt. I thought I had fallen into a Dahli painting.

NASA ground level image

I called our house when we got to a friend’s house. (This is before cell phones, people.) Busy signal. I called my mom. Everything’s okay, but there’s a fire. My house is gone, I sobbed.

“Oh, honey,” she said, “I heard about that fire. I’m sure your house is fine. Hang on…that’s the call waiting….your uncle just called and told me about the fire. I’m watching on tv now. I’m so sorry.”

I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. My boyfriend showed up with camping kitchen utensils. Not sure how that would help, since everyone except me still had a kitchen. What I really needed was a bra, truth be told, because I was still in my jammies and VERY uncomfortable about not being, um, fully dressed.

My dad and stepmom had been driving cross country to come see my new apartment.

here's the bedroom...and all the other rooms. They're a bit dusty.

They took me clothes shopping instead. FEMA and the Red Cross set up tons of booths on campus and we got our books replaced and some money for food.

My roommate got mono and went home for the semester. I moved into a frat house that generously offered to let me stay. It was disgusting and uncomfortable but they were insanely nice to me. I lived in a haze, rarely ate, and somehow functioned. The University offered the extremely rare chance to drop a class without penalty. I dropped music and kept organic chemistry.

Life goes on for all but the 25 people who died. I still remember stories of those who didn’t make it. You don’t need those images in your mind, but I still feel graphic descriptions I read when combing the news for friends’ names. Every day came, despite the fire, like the one before, with sunshine and too many people and cars and unceasing noise. Days just kept coming.

A year later I had pretty terrible PTSD. And each year is easier. My long-term terror at the sight of fires eventually subdued to a simple avoidance of flame. I no longer have nightmares or panic attacks. I have driven past the old apartment a few times. I can look at a few photos without panicking, though I can’t click links to video of that day. (I asked someone to preview this video, and it includes footage of the fire behind our building.)

I’ve heard there are events today: memorials for those who died, celebrations for those who’ve rebuilt. But I can’t go today. I just can’t do that yet. I’m not ready. I have my clump of molten pennies, salvaged from somewhere around where we lived. Sorry, other survivors, if I took your pennies. We all had a change pile, and it all fused. Hope you found some, too, when they finally let us go back. I have a really close friend, now, in that roommate with whom I had just coexisted. And I think somewhere I still have a coffee mug with a clump of concrete fused to it. It’s a dorky, cartoon teddy bear mug, but the chunk of building glommed onto it makes it seem edgier. Like punk rock watercolor bears who got so drunk they can’t remember how they got fused with concrete. But they’re stuck with it now.

A big ol’ concrete scar that marks us for life and makes us remember that, well, not everyone’s lucky enough to see a dark line on their history and say, “that’s the day I almost died. But I didn’t and I’m here, so let’s get going.”

[And now my PSA: Please trim the greenery near your house. Please have an emergency bag packed with id, extra money or credit card, spare glasses, any meds you take, and a thumb drive with all your photos. And please update your insurance policy. Boring, true. Useful, though.]

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26 thoughts on “Oakland Hills Fire Anniversary

  1. I don’t know if it was scarier or easier for the people whose homes burned later in the day. There was simply no warning. No fire alarms, no evacuation order. Nothing. Just, “hey, look, a major fire” and then everything was gone.

    Now go pack your pictures. I’m serious.

  2. WORD WERD WURD. I can’t say it enuff. WORD. Geez, this brings back horrible memories for me too. Here’s my story.

    I had just moved to town on Friday. The movers were delivering my stuff on Monday (which was also my first day of work). I went to WallieWorld over the weekend, stocked up on groceries and the everyday stuff (paper towels, tp, detergents, lightbulbs…. to the tune of about 600 bucks in 3 trips.) Monday morning, I called my new boss to tell him that the movers will be here soon, and that the cable guy comes at noon to hook up my internet, then I will be in to sign the paperwork and arrange my desk. Movers get there, unload most of the boxes, and they are looking super tired and hungry, so I tell them to take the truck and head up the road to grab something to eat. My living room is full of boxes. They leave with some of my furniture (a dresser, mattress, kitchen chairs, end tables, coffee table) still on the truck to hit the food strip. They had been gone about 15 mins, when the fire alarm goes off. I thinking GREAT, I got a place where the kids pull the fire alarm or it goes off with the wind. Awesome. Then I hear all this commotion in the hall and outside. I see clothes all over the grass and a futon being thrown off a porch above me [they were trying to save their stuff]. I’m thinking what the hell is this, romper room? Christ. I was trying to make room in the living room and bedroom for the rest of the furniture, moving boxes around and putting them in the right rooms, when someone banged LOUDLY on my door and window and yelled ‘get out, there’s a fire.’ I go to the door, open it, and immediately smell the campfire smell and see little embers floating thru the smoky air. It didn’t dawn on me yet that MY APT IS UP IN FLAMES. I walked outside in my socks when I realized the entire front side of the building was engulfed in 80 ft high flames… OH SHIT… and that my car was right in front….. DOUBLE SHIT. I grabbed my sandals, my purse, a water bottle, and my keys. I moved my car to another parking lot, and by the time I ran back to my apt in MY SOCKS across gravel… the first fire truck had arrived and they wouldn’t let me in my place. SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT. I lost everything that meant something… scrapbooks, pics, etc. GONE. The entire complex burned completely to the ground. Nothing left. I too have pictures of it from the day after where there’s just a skeleton of a concrete hallway.

    The Red Cross (LOOOOOVE THEM) put me up in a hotel for a week while I found a new place and got my bearings, again.

    PACK YOUR PICTURES. COPY THEM, PUT THEM IN A FIRE BOX. JUST DO IT.

    GET INSURANCE NOW. NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW.

    PHOTOCOPY YOUR PASSPORT, SS CARD, DRIVERS LICENSE, MEDICAL INFO, and keep it all somewhere fireproof or in your email acct. JUST DO IT.

    KEEP A BAG OF CLOTHES AND A PAIR OF SHOES IN YOUR CAR.

  3. Holy shit. Holy fucking shit. After being shocked, my first thought was “I’m so glad you didn’t have kids back then.” And really glad you made it out alive. What a horrible experience.

    And then jc had a similar thing happen? Holy shit. I’m in awe of both of your resilience. Wow.

  4. x( I typed your name, then deleted it because I’m not supposed to know it. I’m so so so sorry. Geezus that’s scary. We’d been there a month. Half an hour is…geez. What did you do? Where did you go? What did you tell your boss? wtf? How did you tell the movers “you have the only things I own, please don’t leave them on the freeway but I have nowhere to put them?

    I volunteered for two years with the Red Cross because they were so freaking awesome to us. And not like a case worker for months. I mean a decent person when we’d stood in line for an entire day. One form to fill out and offers of help. “Do you need a place to stay tonight” was the nicest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole goddamned life. Red Cross. Do you need help replacing your books? Red Cross. Since all your class notes went up in flames, we would like to get you the notetaking service for your big lectures. Red Cross.

    And, are you ready for it? “Do you need to call home? We have phones you can use.” Makes me cry right now thinking about it. They know what people need and they do it. Fucking Red Cross. Everyone write a check right now. Volunteer.

    So sorry for your losses, Unicorn. Never goes away, does it? The fear? Fireproof safe, baby. Pair of shoes in the car, baby. Jacket, too.

    I’m so sorry.

  5. Cathy, I hated that term for so long, until I was in SoCal for their huge, huge fire. And I realized from aerial photos and the time lapse that we were just swallowed from the Tunnel to the Claremont. Just swallowed.

    Very lucky, indeed. I think everyone from the Parkwoods made it out. People in Hiller Highlands did not. A firefighter and a police officer died.

    And I am still gobsmacked every time I hear about it.

    Thanks for listening. Really. Days like that make you feel small. Really, really small. That’s okay, because alive and powerless is a good reality. But small and heard feels nice.

  6. When I called my boss AS THE FIRE WAS HAPPENING from the main office of the apt complex… he said “whut? really? ok, do what you need to do.” and that was it. He later apologized for not offering to help. I was abit shocked by his reaction, but turns it, he sucked as a boss for his don’t-give-a-shit attitude.

    The movers stuck my dresser, mattress, and tables in a storage area that the apt complex had in another building for broken appliances. The mover dudes literally were deer in headlights. So was the cable guy. I sat on the lawn and watched everything go up in flames, and cried. I watched the fireman busted through my window and shoot the hose in my flaming bedroom. I couldn’t believe it. Up to that point, I thought my pics and stuff would be ok … hell no. The water damage alone dashed that hope.

    I lost most of my textbooks and class notes…only the books that I stuffed in the dresser to make sure it didn’t flip during the move were ok.

    The Red Cross gave me a credit card since I lost ALL MY CLOTHES. I HAD NOTHING…. ***NOTHING*** to wear. I went to Wally and bought shoes, socks, underwear, leggings, and sweatshirts for the cheapest I could do. One student gave me a massive bag of clothes to wear from her closet. I give to the Red Cross every year and always will.

    I wake from a dead sleep at the mere sound of a fire siren. I know the rumbling sound of a fire engine if the siren isn’t on. I have DOG HEARING for fire alarms. I miss my memories terribly. I can see the pictures in my head. I have a panic attack over an open flame. Even the smell of something burning under the stove burner is enough to freak me out. I’m a nervous wreck around fire now.

    One woman packed up and left her apt immediately because she was so scared, so I took her apt. It was the building next door. Every day, I would stare out the window and cry at the charred remains of my life. They put up a fence immediately, and it rained hard the day after the fire. The firemen were there every day for a week making sure everything was out, and they let me pick thru what was left. Stuff from the kitchen was only water damaged (pots and silverware), but having gloves on and the smell of char and sewage really wasn’t worth picking thru. The skeleton of the building was there for about 9 months, then it got bulldozed, and then became a grassy field. I used to go over and stand where my bedroom was with my picture box. That’s what I miss the most. It was the record of my life.

    Hugs right back at you Nap. I know *exactly* how you feel.

  7. Hugs to both Nap and Unicorn. When are you going to write your own blog, Unicorn? You have such a strong voice.

    I’ve only heard the stories from the East Bay and it is still unimaginable to me that something of that magnitude could happen so quickly. I hope with each year you will both be a little more healed.

    Glad most of my photos are on the “cloud” now. I do need to get more disaster ready in general though. Thanks for the reminder.

    • @Fie Yes, I have to say “Holy fucking shit” is about where I still stand on that one. I completely agree about not having kids. Honestly, I don’t know how we would have gotten out.

      @Que Sera Thanks for the cyber hugs. I’ll let unicorn speak for herself about why she is blog-shy, for that’s her story to tell. Now, go make a go-bag and an emergency kit. Please.

      @Emily Because it’s been so darned long since the fire I’ve found that kids make the fading go faster. I just don’t have time to wallow in fear or in loss of heirlooms. And I’m glad for that.

      @Stephane Thank you. Very kind and generous of you. I hope, in return, that you have lots of joyful memories and peace, too.

  8. Damn. Just damn. That video in the post (I listened to it but can’t watch because I sob when they show my building both before and after) reminded me that we couldn’t go back for 5 weeks. And when we did it was weird. Folding tables set up with approximate addresses so people could find things. Know what survived, other than NOTHING? Corningware. And coin collections that fused together. I’ll take a photo when I find mine. It’s cool, as a sculpture of all that you had melted into a useless object in the palm of your hand can be.

    Photos, dude. Had my parents’ wedding photos. Had my grandma’s ring. Had letters and letters and letters.

    Had.

    It’s really easy to toss stuff now. Nothing has the same kind of memory. The boys’ clothes I have a hard time getting rid of, but the fire cured the packrat in me. Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care…oh that one I care about, so put it in the safe…don’t care, don’t care.

    Living there, looking right at the building would be tough. Our fire was so big the whole hillside was blackened and visible from the freeway 6+ miles away. I had to avoid all travel that got me close enough to see the area or I’d hyperventilate.

    I’m much, much better about fire now. I can light candles. I think what cured me was a building fire one night as we got out of the theater. I’d been doing The Tempest and as we left there was an apartment fire across the street. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t move. The cast just stayed with me and walked me a safe distance and we watched. And I desensitized. I was safe. *That* fire couldn’t get me. The one that could is gone.

    Don’t get me wrong: we don’t use our fireplace. We didn’t in the other houses with fireplaces, either. And I don’t enjoy campfires the way I used to. Now I stay far away, praying to goddesses I don’t believe in to keep my children safe from fire.

    Check out some PTSD therapy, friend. I only made it to two sessions because I was so itchy in a clinical setting. But that huge fire right in front of me helped. I don’t recommend aversion therapy, so I don’t know what to tell you.

    Microwave. And flashlights. No candles.

    Big hugs, Glitter Goddess. May you find a tea cup that sings home and health to you so that you can hold it every day and find peace.

  9. Yeah, I’m much smarter about choosing places to live now. My current place has a water sprinker in EVERY room, fire walls, and there hasn’t been any problems at all. My new place has fire walls and sprinklers. It also has a gas fireplace, and the fire dept is less than a mile away. I’ll be buying a house soon – one more year of prices dropping. I’ll be better when I don’t have to worry about other people’s fire habits.

    I’m much better than I was… my fire was years ago now. But yes, I still wake from a siren 10 miles out, and the smell of smoke makes my heart pound. It’s tolerable because it’s not everyday.

    I got my Batman car, my grammy’s necklace, a scarab bracelet and watch from my mother, and a cassette tape of me playing the piano when I was a kid from the rubble. That was it. The teal plastic box they were in was melted, but when I snapped it apart, those things fell out. They are now all in a fireproof box in *another* fireproof box that I haven’t opened in years.

    The chargeable candles from teevee shopping ROCK. I have candles for decor but they will never be lit (I cut the wicks off). The chargeable candles go in the candle holders and look amazing. My fire was started by a woman burning candles in her apt next to mine. I’m a nervous wreck about candles now.

    I can’t watch footage of fires. My heart breaks. Too much.

    Had. Yeah, I hate that word too.

  10. Wow. I am speechless and stunned by your “experience”….quotes because that word doesn’t do it justice. I can only imagine what it was like to cope with the PTS and glad to hear the school was supportive and that you were surrounded by family. Do you find that some of the scars from this resurfaced a bit in new ways once your children came along? I’m curious because motherhood has tweaked some old wounds for me. I would imagine this would be the same. Thank you for re telling your story so poignantly.

  11. Aw, guys! I’m so sorry. I’m really, truly sorry. I know it’s unlikely but I hope the trauma fades until it’s only a pinprick in your minds. And I hope your lives are filled with joyful new memories–and peace.

    • Let Me Start, you were way too young at the time. You probably heard about the San Diego fires in 2004 or 2005, though. Same catastrophic, unbelievable, why does anyone live in California nonsense.

      I’m glad we got out okay, too.

  12. nap, winter is infinity times infinity better then that, i should send you booze. you obviously belong here on this spinning blue orb. i’m glad you and unicorn found each other. holy crap. i hope you make it through fire safety week with peanut ok, they come home scared, asking a ton of questions about what will catch on fire and wanting to plan an escape route, although i bet p could lecture the class on that already. may the force be with you cyber friend, although it would seem you do have it by your side.

    • LOL, Jenn. That’s what I was thinking the whole time I wrote that post. I just sleep with one now. Unless a quake or fire hits mid-shower. Crap. Gotta go put a bra in the bag. You’re always right.

  13. @meg you’re not allowed to read about scary things. Go cuddle your new love.

    @tara winter did a number on me, too, but that’s another story involving an ice storm and the urgent care…hope you had an uneventful week. They’re my October favorite.

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