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Oakland Hills Fire: What Do You Remember?

The blaze killed 25 people, scorched 1,520 acres and destroyed or damaged 3,469 homes and apartments

Where were you 20 years ago?

If you were in the Bay Area, you most certainly remember the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

The blaze, with its ominous black cloud blanketing the East Bay, officially lasted for four days, from Saturday, Oct. 19, when it first ignited as a seemingly routine grass fire, to Wednesday, Oct. 23, when it was officially declared extinguished.

The most destructive day was Sunday, Oct. 20, when the fire reignited in a valley just north of Highway 24 and just west of the Caldecott Tunnel.

In the first hour of its fury, the fire torched 790 homes, igniting a house every 11 seconds.

The flames, reaching 100 feet in height, killed 25 people while scorching 1,520 acres in the hills of Oakland on both sides of Highway 24.

It destroyed or damaged 3,469 structures, mostly in the Hiller Highlands, Montclair and Piedmont neighborhoods. Of those destroyed, 2,843 were single-family homes. Also destroyed were 2,000 vehicles. And more than 5,100 people were left homeless.

It also scorched the memories of those who saw it.

What do you remember from that day? Are you a survivor? How was your life changed by the fire? Share your remembrances with us in the comments section.

You can also find more photos and recollections of the fire on oaklandnet.com, a website for Oakland residents, as well as stories in the San Jose Mercury News.

Diana October 17, 2011 at 09:17 PM
I remember seeing the hills on fire from the 880 freeway. It was devastating. I am an interior designer and helped some of the victims afterwards during the rebuilding and decorating of their homes. These people were so traumatized, they could not make decisions very well, they burst into tears on shopping trips, they reflected on neighbors that perished in the fire. You could see that this horrific event had left them so scarred. The vulnerable feeling never goes away. It was so sad. This fire has left it's mark on so many. I hope we never see anything like this again!
Anneke9 October 17, 2011 at 11:07 PM
Three weeks before our wedding, my husband lost everything he owned in the Fire. He called me excitedly that Sunday morning, saying that there was a fire on the opposite side of the freeway. He and the other tenants were going up on the roof to see what was going on. By the time they got to the roof, the fire was coming over the hills toward them. He had time to grab his computer, guitar and a few keepsakes before he fled. I had driven up to Broadway Terrace to help him. I stood on the sidewalk and watched as burnt pieces of paper floated everywhere... a novel, a cookbook. My wedding ring did survive the fire, though. I dug it out of the kitchen area--he had hidden it in the kitchen cupboard for safekeeping. The pipes in the sink burst sometime during the fire and sprayed water all over the kitchen, so there were still identifiable wet objects there... a loaf of bread, the heating plate for the coffee pot, and my ring.
Carol Parker October 18, 2011 at 05:19 AM
We lived in Montclair (almost up to Skyline Blvd.) in a house that overlooked Shepard Canyon. We were in Berkeley that day on College Avenue having a belated anniversary "date" and our two young children were at home with a teenage babysitter. We could see the smoke pouring from the Berkeley hills from College Avenue and raced to return home, first naively trying to go up Tunnel road to catch Highway 13, but ultimately wound up having to take a bizarre route going up 880 to Richmond, going through El Sobrante to San Pablo Dam Road, going through a narrow back road in Moraga that winds behind the Oakland hills finally and up over Skyline.. By the time we arrived we could see flames lapping the hillside in the distance.. The babysitter's father had come to rescue the kids and was hosing off our roof. We loaded the 2 dogs, the kids, our birds, hard drive and family photos in our car and spent the next couple days in San Ramon at a friends' house, not knowing for many hours whether we would have a home to return to. The fire did not reach our neighborhood, but we personally knew 45 families who lost their homes. It was surreal. When we returned home the smoke was still hanging in the air. It looked like a moonscape all over the hills for many months. It was a life altering experience. When I think about it, it seems like yesterday, instead of 20 years ago.
Ron Bronstein October 18, 2011 at 05:02 PM
My sister-in-law and her kids had just moved up there before the fire, not long after my brother died. Their house was a total loss. grief upon grief. Everything they owned perished in the fire. They are doing fine now, but I can't imagine how it was for them to have to go through that so soon after my brother died.
Kari Hulac (Editor) October 18, 2011 at 05:18 PM
Thank you everyone for sharing these sad and painful stories. It's a good lesson to everyone today to help us remember what's important.
Jojo Potato October 18, 2011 at 11:49 PM
I don't mean to be flippant, but I was sitting in the revolving bar atop the Hyatt Recency twirling a straw in my cocktail on that Sunday night. It was pretty surreal, that's my memory. It seems the big boss at the financial place I worked at was concerned that the market might move on that Monday and we wouldn't be staffed to handle it. Se we drove through the tunnel on Sunday night, my boss and I, with the fire burning above us, and checked into the hotel. Even now I'm pretty uncomfortable with the memory, to be enjoying such luxury while lives and homes were being lost. And my boss snored like a donkey!
Kathy October 19, 2011 at 10:56 PM
Diana - Were you up in HIller HIghlands? I worked up there for a couple of years for a Construction Management team rebuilding HH 4 and 5. I still think of all those homeowners I worked with and wonder how they are now, and how many are still up there.

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