Why We Rebuild: Seeking Place and Community After the 1991 East Bay Hills Fire

Posted on May 16, 2013

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In 1991, a devastating wildfire swept through the East Bay Hills of Oakland and Berkeley, California, claiming twenty-five lives and 3,000 homes.[1] The Diablo winds, a hot, dry wind pattern that caused several disastrous wildfires in the same region throughout the 20th century, were again the source of this blaze. The fire caused $2.7 Billion in damage, easily the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history.[2] A five-year drought period preceding the fire killed massive amounts of trees, leaving a “highly combustible blanket” though which the fire rapidly spread.[3] In their official report that followed this fire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wrote: “The factors that set the stage for this disaster were identified long before the fire occurred, and the potential consequences had been predicted by fire officials…It was a fire that demonstrates how natural forces may be beyond the control of human intervention and should cause a renewed look at the risk of wildland-urban interface fire disasters.”[4]

As a location in the San Francisco Metropolitan area, the East Bay Hills are highly coveted for the relative seclusion they provide in one of the most densely populated regions of the U.S., a luxury suburban-style neighborhood built into the hills not far from the University of California – Berkeley. The inhabitants of this region in 1991 (and still today) were middle to upper middle class, mostly white but with “many Asians (and) a considerable number of African Americans.”[5] The neighborhood is largely considered a socially progressive paradise, given its diversity and its proximity to both liberal San Francisco and college town Berkeley. For its residents, the reasons to live there are numerous, and most who lost their homes in the 1991 fire rebuilt in the same community. Those who continue to live in the East Bay Hills do so despite the great risk the region presents for future wildfires. In this paper, I contend that residents of the East Bay Hills have various psychological, economic, and political justifications for continuing to rebuild in a region that wildfires are practically guaranteed to repeatedly devastate.

“Phoenix Societies”

ImageIn her research, Susannah Hoffman, herself a survivor of the 1991 fire, concludes that human actions during and following “major calamaties” are largely predictable. As both witness and victim of this event, she offers a unique perspective on the topic. During the East Bay Hills fire, she writes, “People leaped into cars and attempted to drive out of the fire’s path by a number of escape routes. One that was narrow and blocked led to most of the deaths.”[6] In the face of life-threatening danger, people uniformly act in this desperate, autonomous manner, often at the expense of their community’s collective security. Yet in the aftermath, these behaviors are quickly supplanted by the strong, emotional desire to unite and to save others. This shift in actions and emotions, according to Hoffman, is practically a rule: “Indeed, it defines the essential nature of the group, the membership or who the people are called ‘us,’ and reasserts shared humanity and community.”[7]  Such a shift is a significant part of a rapid psychological journey, ending with “aid evolving into commonality.”[8] The emotional results are often euphoric. Hoffman is quick to specify that, due to their general privilege and access to resources, the survivors of the East Bay Hills Fire were in a better position than victims of other such events who may, for example, have had to live in tent cities or survivor camps.[9] Regardless, from her personal experience coupled with her research, she believes that these survivors follow similar psychological patterns as those with heavier burdens and more harrowing conditions.

Hoffman stresses that survivors feel that “social form and fabric have dissolved,” and that they are essentially on their own.[10] This is often devastating for a victim’s mental health, a concern that disaster relief efforts frequently underestimate. Generally speaking, in this face of such helplessness, it is a victim’s foremost desire to return to a sense of normalcy, a sense that is generally embodied by the concept of home. Those who are able offer observances, either recognizing the triviality of their daily lives or thanking nature for sparing them. Crippled by a feeling Hoffman describes as “the lambs of catastrophe,” disaster survivors’ observances “almost inevitably take place near or upon the devastated turf and focus on environment.”[11] Combined with a variety of factors that I will lay out later, this desire is what caused most East Bay Hills Fire survivors to return “to dwell again in the disaster zone,” a trend that Hoffman writes is “almost universally the case” among victims of major disasters.

Support systems put in place in the East Bay Hills neighborhood following the 1991 fire seemed to suggest that its residents are inextricably tied to fire. Using the 1991 fire as its case study, a report concerning health effects following urban wildfires made note of several of these support groups. Catering to young children, the local art museum “conducted art therapy workshops related to the fire,” while at an area hospital, psychiatrists tended to those who sustained injuries, focusing on fears of wildfires and post-traumatic stress.[12] Yet the description of one style of group in particular makes it clear that for most East Bay Hills inhabitants, rebuilding was the primary option. “Neighborhood support groups, dubbed ‘Phoenix Societies’ after the mythical bird that emerges from its own ashes, sprang up in many fire-ravaged areas.”[13] The powerful symbolism of the Phoenix undoubtedly was a perfect match for the spirit of the victims of the fire, intent to rebuild their homes and their lives.

“Imported Eucalyptus”

From a real estate perspective, the East Bay Hills were a logical location for development of expensive residential properties. Most of Oakland is flatlands, extending approximately four miles in off of the coast of the San Francisco Bay, and most of Oakland’s population lives in this flatland region.[14] The East Bay Hills are an abrupt end to this even landscape, a row of hills “with a ridge line approximately 1,300 feet above sea level.”[15] Built into the western face, the homes of the hills feature panoramic views of San Francisco, Oakland, and the bay. From the inception of the residential area in the early 20th century, the East Bay Hills have held an air of luxury. The first homes built were indeed second homes for city folk, a place in the country to escape the crowded city.[16]

Yet despite their immediate reputation for opulence, continued development on the East Bay Hills was a problematic decision. Infrastructural challenges abound, particularly in roads and water supply. Roads had to be built both winding and at a steep grade, and in places the turns are so tight that two cars are unable to pass each other simultaneously.[17] Access to large water storage tanks is limited and dependent on electric pumps, which “relay water from the lower storage tanks up to the tanks at higher levels.”[18] For an area that is prone to wildfires, the East Bay Hills’ developers gave far too little consideration to fire security and prevention. The San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club puts it best, albeit in retrospect:

“During some Diablo Wind wildfires there will not be enough firefighters, fire trucks, helicopters, or aircraft to save every house or even control the fire until the winds slow. Unlike “normal” fires that can be fought, to a certain extent on the ground, Diablo Wind fires prevent the placement of firefighters on steep slopes or other hazardous locations due to the speed of wind-driven fire. Under these circumstances, quick evacuation and homeowners insurance will be the only protection for residents who have lost property.”[19]

The introduction of non-native tree species made this situation worse. Lumber-dependent development in the 19th century left the East Bay Hills practically bare, so Eucalyptus trees from Australia, chosen for their large coverage area and rapid growth, were imported and planted in the early 1900s.[20] This choice, however, proved especially problematic in regards to wildfires, as rapid growing Eucalyptus trees are prone to burning rapidly as well. According to FEMA, “They also create flying brands, which are easily carried by the wind to start new fires ahead of a fire front.”[21] Planting this type of tree in a region in which wildfires historically did little damage, but instead maintained a balance among flora and fauna types, was perhaps the most direct cause of the wide spread of the 1991 fire. The aesthetic beauty provided by the wide coverage area of the Eucalyptus is indeed the same trait that makes its unnatural existence in the region so dangerous: the “continuity of wildland cover” these trees create provided constant fuel to the fire.[22] In this case, the wildfire restarted after initial submission due to the large numbers of grounded, fire-prone Eucalyptus branches, scattered across the landscape after years of drought.

Yet even laid out in this fashion, in the ecologically challenging San Francisco metropolitan region, I would argue that the grave environmentally challenges posed to East Bay Hills residents are actually rather commonplace. This alone may not fully support a justification to rebuild, but the economic strength of the metropolitan presents another attractive reason to stay. Prone to severe earthquakes, built on hills so steep as to be cartoonish, the city of San Francisco thrives economically despite the risks and challenges its landscape presents. A 2011 study shows the GDP of the San Francisco metropolitan region as being approximately the size of that of Thailand.[23] This economic context is necessary to understand a collective rationale to rebuild homes into the sides of the East Bay Hills. The region, home to Silicon Valley, two of the most prestigious universities in the world in Stanford and U.C. Berkeley, the center of U.S. wine production (and, less glamorously, of U.S. biotechnology), is among the wealthiest metropolitan regions in the world. For these reasons, coupled with other pleasing factors such as mild weather and cultural enrichment, it is also among the most expensive places in the U.S. to live. This lends an aspirational quality to the homes of the East Bay Hills: they are arguably the most exclusive, most remote homes in one of the richest regions of the country.

The financial importance of the region has long been valued over the ecological dangers present. In 1906, an earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed most of San Francisco. Relief for the devastated city cost approximately $500 Million, or “1.8 percent of nominal U.S. GDP in 1906,” a cost percentage-wise that far exceeds that of modern natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, or even of the World Trade Center bombings.[24] A premier port city and the heart of the California Gold Rush long before the region’s technological boom, the San Francisco metropolitan region has been a crucial piece of the U.S. economy since its inception.

“Victims”

Malibu is a region with both a similar demographic and similar wildfire burning characteristics as the East Bay Hills. Indeed, Mike Davis argues that Malibu, among the wealthiest communities in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, may be the wildfire capital of the world.[25] A key difference is that the chaparral plants that spread Malibu area wildfires are native to the region, while eucalyptus trees are not. Still, prior to settlement, the region was prone to massive but relatively harmless fires; it was the establishment of residential communities, against the advice of conservationists, which triggered the problem. If the East Bay Hills are serene and lovely, Malibu is an absolute paradise. Davis describes the Malibu coast as “where hyperbole meets the surf.”[26] Malibu enjoys absolutely perfect Southern California weather almost every day of the year. Its residents are among the richest, most powerful, and most famous in the country.

But its wildfires are gigantic, unbelievably destructive, and inevitable. Yet, Davis argues, the victims of Malibu wildfires enjoy a particularly outrageous autonomy when it is time to rebuild their homes: “Each conflagration…was punctually followed by rebuilding on a larger and more exclusive scale as landuse regulations and sometimes even the fire code were relaxed to accommodate fire ‘victims.’”[27] Those who can afford Malibu, much like those who can afford to live in the East Bay Hills, value their location for a multitude of reasons, none less than the aspirational quality their lives in these places seems to achieve. After the devastation of wildfires, the political arena undoubtedly encourages a particularly strong public commitment to restoring these communities to this supposed greatness. Given these political conditions, coupled with fire insurance and lax building codes that operate in their favor, residents of these communities seem to face a rather simple choice.

ImageThe 1937 Fire Prevention Code of the City of Berkeley is a thorough document, providing information regarding a wide variety of fire-related issues, such as hazardous materials, explosives and ammunition, and smoking in movie theaters.[28] It makes no mention of the inherent dangers of wildfires, of preventing their spread or proper escape techniques. Perhaps this omission is purposeful; after all, the region’s wildfires are largely an “act of nature.” But it is a glaring omission regardless.

The East Bay Hills neighborhood will be destroyed by wildfire again. Its residents are perhaps more properly equipped to escape and even save some of their homes than they have been in the past. Infrastructure such as roads and water access remain crucial problems. FEMA and the California Office of Emergency Services have provided the following recommendations:

  • Control flammable vegetation near homes;
  • Require safer home construction materials (in particular, ban wooden roofs in high-fire-hazard areas);
  • Widen streets or prohibit curbside parking in areas with narrow streets, or both;
  • Improve communications protocols and equipment for emergency personnel;
  • Upgrade and standardize emergency water delivery systems;
  • Improve interagency disaster planning; and
  • Establish viable evacuation plans for high-fire-risk areas

As is the case with most collective action, efforts to make these improvements have moved slowly through the political machine. Residents will be shocked and traumatized by the devastation; they will naturally save themselves and then think of others. Survivors will seek a sense of home and of solidarity. They will also look for someone or some organization to blame. But the crux of the wildfire problem in the East Bay Hills is irreversible, far too rooted in the history of the landscape. The only way to escape this cycle of devastation would be to leave, not to rebuild differently. But there are too many reasons to stay.


[1] (“East Bay Fire History” 2012)

[2] (“10 Most Expensive Wildfires” June 27, 2012)

[3] J. Gordon Routley, “The East Bay Hills Fire – Oakland-Berkeley, California,” U.S. Fire Administration/Technical Report Series, 60 (1991), 6.

[4] (Routley 1991): 2.

[5] Susanna Hoffman, and Anthony Oliver-Smith, The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective, (London: Routledge, 1999), chap. 7, 135.

[6] (Hoffman et al. 1999): 138.

[7] (Hoffman et al. 1999): 138.

[8] (Hoffman et al. 1999): 139.

[9] (Hoffman et al. 1999): 139.

[10] Dennis Shusterman, Jerold Kaplan, and Carla Canabarro, “Immediate Health Effects of an Urban Wildfire,”The Western Journal of Medicine, 158, no. 2 (1993): 138.

[11] (Hoffman et al. 1999): 143.

[12] (Shusterman et al. 1993): 138

[13] (Shusterman et al. 1993): 138

[14] (Routley 1991): 4.

[15] (Routley 1991): 5.

[16] (Routley 1991): 7.

[17] (Routley 1991): 7.

[18] (Routley 1991): 7.

[19] “Managing the East Bay Hills Wildland/Urban Interface to Preserve Native Habitat and Reduce the Risk of Catastrophic Fire,” Sierra Club, California Native Plant Society, Golden Gate Audubon Society(2009): 1-21, http://ebcnps.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/environmental-green-paper-on-ebrpd-vegetation-mgmt.pdf (accessed April 25, 2013): 2.

[20] (Routley 1991): 6.

[21] (Routley 1991): 7.

[22] (Routley 1991): 10.

[23] (Florida, July 21, 2011)

[24] Kerry Odell, and Marc Weidenmier, “Real Shock, Monetary Aftershock: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the Panic of 1907,” The Journal of Economic History, 64, no. 4 (2004): 1005.

[25]Mike Davis, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,”Environmental History Review, 19, no. 2 (1995): 3.

[26] (Davis, 1995): 1.

[27] (Davis, 1995): 9.

[28] Fire Prevention Code of the City of Berkeley. (Berkeley, California: Gazette Press, 1937).

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