October marks the 20th anniversary of the Oakland hills firestorm and a series of commemorations, events and exhibits are planned to mark the disaster.
Currently on view at the Oakland History Room at the Main Library, 125 14th St., is an exhibit, "Remembering and Rebuilding: A Commemoration of the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm." The exhibit runs through Nov. 30, and recalls the disaster, the response and the community's efforts to heal and rebuild in the aftermath.
The History Room is located on the second level of the Main; the first part of the exhibit starts in the display case on the landing, near the elevator, and continues down the hall in the History Room.
In the first case are historical photos of the Upper Rockridge, taken in the early years of the 20th century, when the hillsides were just beginning to be developed. Views of the iconic, white "Rockridge Portals," with empty lots in the background make for a striking image.
The exhibit then moves to the morning of the fire and provides almost a minute-to-minute account of the events as they unfolded, with dispatch transcripts, news accounts, photos and maps. According to History Room Librarian Dorothy Lazard, who worked along with other library staff members to create the exhibit, many of the photographs came from a collection of materials that were donated to the library.
"We received a donation of several boxes of information from the executor of the estate of an Oakland resident, Don Pearman, who was a hills resident and construction contractor," she explained. Pearman passed away in 2008 at the age of 62.
"His house survived the fire, but in the months following, he decided to do research on the causes and reasons for the fire," Lazard said.
Now, 20 years later, his meticulous documentation of the event is proving to be a moving tribute to our shared past.
Another hills resident, photographer Margaretta Mitchell, with grant assistance from the City of Oakland's Cultural Funding Program, has created her own personal expression of the fire and rebuilding. Her "Phoenix Firestorm Project" is a documentary film in DVD format that recounts the saga of her partially destroyed home -- a landmark structure designed in 1925 by renowned local architect William Raymond Yelland.
Mitchell's ruined home -- most of its distinctive, steep pitched roof was completely destroyed -- on a hill overlooking Chabot Canyon just east of Highway 24 was a highly visible sight to motorists in the months following the fire. For some time an enormous blue tarp, secured by ropes, protected what was left from the elements, while Mitchell and her family along with hundreds of other families affected by the fire took the steps toward rebuilding.
The process took 2 ½ years. "I constantly made photographs and videos, which I now seek to make into a multimedia art piece," Mitchell wrote in her grant application, "that captures my experience of rising from ashes of disaster, putting my life back together while doing the same for a building."
With the awarding of funding, Mitchell is now ready to give presentations about her experience. The Oakland Heritage Alliance is sponsoring the first showing at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Chapel of the Chimes, 4429 Piedmont Ave. Admission is $10 for OHA members, $15 for general public. To learn more, check the website www.oaklandheritage.org, or leave a message at 510-763-9218. Mitchell will be donated copies of the DVD to libraries and archives
Starting Oct. 15, the Oakland Museum of California will be presenting, "1991: Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath: Photographs by Richard Misrach." More information is available at www.museumca.org.
The city of Oakland is hosting a series of events starting at 9 a.m. Oct. 22, when a time of reflection will be held at the Rockridge BART station Firestorm Tile Wall. Then, at 10:30 a.m., there will be a Remembrance Program at the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center, Tunnel Road and Caldecott Lane. Invited speakers include the mayors of Berkeley and Oakland, and fire chiefs from both cities.
A Family Preparedness Fair is also planned from noon to 5 p.m. Oct. 22 at the meadow at Lake Temescal (north entrance) 6500 Broadway. There will be informative events for families, with fire engines, emergency preparation information, food and entertainment. Details are available at www.oaklandnet.com/firestorm20. For additional information leave a message at 510-238-7070 or email FirestormAnniversary@oaklandnet.com.
You can also post memories of the fire and the aftermath on Facebook. Go to Facebook.com/firestorm20.