Financial Times, June 24, 2006
On Sunday October 20 1991, Frances Dinkelspiel and her husband Gary Wayne, who live in the Bay Area of California, decided to take his parents, who were visiting from New Jersey, to brunch in San Francisco. Their roommate, Brad Rosen, was having a lazy morning. He had been partying the night before and planned to go surfing later in the day. It was hot and windy as they drove over the Bay Bridge to the city and made for Zuni Café on Market Street. A couple of hours later they stepped out onto the pavement and glanced over towards the Oakland Hills where they lived. “There was a huge vertical column of smoke rising from the hills,” says Frances. “At that moment we knew we were in trouble.”
They drove back towards home but could only go so far as all the streets leading up into the hills had been closed off. Gary begged a bicycle from a friend who lived nearby and set off to find out what he could. He didn’t get far. A group of firefighters stopped him at the end of his street and asked him where he thought he was going. They told him it was so hot they themselves had to leave. Gary abandoned the bike and hiked to the summit of nearby Claremont Canyon from where he could see the fire cutting a devastating path across the hills. “Gary called me late in the afternoon,” says Frances. “He said he had watched our house burn down. He was crying and Gary hardly ever cries.”
The Oakland Fire, one of the largest and most costly in US history, engulfed 2.5 square miles of the East Bay Hills. Twenty five people died, many of them trapped in their cars trying to flee, caught up in the traffic jams that formed on the hill’s narrow, winding streets. More than 150 people were injured and at least 3,000 homes were destroyed, leaving some 5,000 people homeless.
Although the exact cause has not been established, a suspicious fire had broken out the previous day in the scrub brush of nearby Wildcat Canyon. Firefighters said they had successfully extinguished the 5-acre blaze. Whether embers from that fire were reignited by dry winds is unclear. Certainly the velocity of the Diablo winds, coupled with temperatures well into the 90s — coming in the wake of five successive years of drought — ensured the rapid spread of the firestorm the next day. At one point a home was igniting every 11 seconds and 790 structures were consumed within a single hour. Efforts to contain the blaze were severely hampered by the steep terrain and twisting, switchback roads. There was a lack of water as the fire took out the electricity needed for the pumps. The emergency services also had difficulty communicating: channels were overloaded and the hills interfered with radio signals.
Frances and Gary lost everything in the fire, including their cat whom they searched for tirelessly in the days after the fire. Brad, their roommate, had left the house that morning with his surfboard, unaware of the impending catastrophe. As he left, the neighbours were packing their car to leave. Unlike Brad, they had heard the advice to evacuate.
Recovering from such a trauma is a slow process. Frances and Gary had only lived in the modern, four-bedroomed house for eight months after moving to the West Coast from New York. Originally from San Francisco, Frances had favoured living in the city but they had both been drawn to the eucalyptus-scented air and stunning views offered by the East Bay hills. While the house itself didn’t hold many memories, some of its contents inevitably did. Frances says one of the most difficult things to lose was a box of letters and photographs relating to her father who died when she was 16.
The couple were allowed to go to the site of their home three days after the fire. “Everything was grey as there was ash everywhere as well as huge clumps of metal, and lone chimney stacks. There was an acrid, chemical smell,” she says. The fact that so many people were affected helped. “Recovery is very different if you suffer and grieve as a community,” says Frances. She remembers how generous people were and the support groups that sprang up to deal with practical as well as emotional issues. Many of the local merchants offered discounts to fire victims.
But Frances found it hard to begin replacing things. And she didn’t feel like nesting for the baby on the way. “I didn’t prepare anything until a week or so before Charlotte was born,” she says. “I think in that way the shock was subconscious.”
Like most of those who lost their homes, the couple decided to rebuild. There was a financial incentive, but also a refusal to be defeated. “Gary was angry and, although we had discussed living elsewhere, this made him dig his heels in.” The couple had kept their insurance up to date and were able to claim substantial compensation for both the house and its contents. The quality of the new house they designed and built reflects this. Others were less fortunate, and spent years wading through red tape and even taking insurance companies to court to make claims.
The total value of the properties lost that day is estimated to exceed $2 billion. One year to the day after the fire, Frances and Gary broke ground to build their new home. Following revised building codes they have built the house from stucco, there are sprinklers in every room and fire-resistant planting in the garden. They keep negatives of treasured photographs in a bank vault and a back-up of the manuscript of the book Frances is writing is filed online. But the anxiety never really goes away. “Every time the weather turns hot and windy, I load up the car and get ready to leave,” she says.