30 January 2014

The Oakland hills fire

One Sunday morning in 1991 some friends and I were visiting a friend who was a UC Berkeley student living on the east side of campus. I noticed that the rising sun shining through the window made a bright red square of light on the floor of her little apartment. But a moment later I realized that this couldn't be right. It was maybe nine in the morning; that couldn't be the sunrise. I went to look out the window.

Smoke was curling beautifully around the sun, glowing red in churning billows.

I called my friends over to look. A minute later we were outside, watching a huge pillar of black smoke rise into the sky. Ten minutes later, we had climbed into a car to chase the smoke and see if we could find where the fire was.

Fifteen minutes after that, we realized that we had misread the distance to the fire; the pillar of smoke was much bigger than we thought. And it had already visibly grown. We turned back, and turned on the radio to hear reports of the fire. Firefighters were responding; some places in the hills were being evacuated, but we were safe.

Our group split up to forage for brunch and enjoy a downtown Berkeley ramble. Shortly after noon, from Shattuck avenue, I saw a long line of fire in the hills, black smoke streaming. I telephoned my host — from a pay phone, this was before we all had phones in our pockets — and my friends were worried. They still weren't being evacuated (and it later turned out they wouldn't be) but radio reports kept describing the fire as growing. “Get back here so we can go home.”

By the time I met back up at my friend's apartment, the whole sky was hazy with gray smoke. Making our way to the freeway, we passed through an even smokier neighborhood. The streets were quiet, and there was an apocalyptic air. Streetlights were on, ash was drifting down over everything, the sky was gray and the sun shone a deep red through it. I misquoted Revelation 6:12: “The sky became as sackcloth and the sun became as blood.”

Finally we found our way to the freeway, and sped out of the smoky area, heading back to Santa Cruz.

As one makes the connection from Berkeley's Highway 24 to 880 heading south toward San Jose, there's an overpass at the edge of downtown Oakland that arcs up high before descending to the freeway, where one can see 880 extending to the south. We were facing thick southbound traffic, but northbound there were no cars.

Just fire trucks. Dozens of them, as far as the eye could see, racing north to the fire.

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