Nadine just took some hundred tulip bulbs out of the refrigerator. She never had time to plant them. Within minutes, we were involved in one of the strangest social experiments of my twenty-eight years in the United States: the Oakland Firestorm. In a matter of hours a mismanaged fire rendered some eight thousand people homeless. In a couple of days, the firestorm proved that people to people welfare works and affirmative action programs do not.
Sunday, October 20, 1991 was a typical hot and dry magnificent summer day, the type that happen in Berkeley hills only in autumn. There are not many days in a year like this, warm, with perfect visibility past the Golden Gate all the way to the Faralones Islands. The gusty easterly "Santa Ana" winds pushed fog and mist half way to Hawaii. The day was perfect for swimming just like a day before, when we sat around the pool and watched two fire helicopters for hours, working a small grass fire someplace east in the hills.
"We are lucky we have no Santa Ana winds today" I said on Saturday. Smoke from the grass fire was climbing straight up. "Otherwise, we would have another 1970 fire". In 1970 a fireman started the fire to get overtime pay. It was a close shave then, a few pines were singed up at the far end of the lot. Only forty houses burnt to the ground, although conditions were hardly any different than in 1991 when the same forty houses will burn again, and a few more along with them.
We hear excuses that the 1991 fire was different because it was so big. But how did it get big? In the same way as all small problems become big problems - by mismanagement.
On Sunday, the annual tournament at the Berkeley Tennis Club was ending and men's doubles quarter finals were scheduled for half past nine. Rather than witness my probable defeat to rather tough competition, Nadine, who is one of the world's greatest gardeners, decided to plant tulips.
In California we must simulate winter season by placing bulbs in the cold together with other food that needs refrigeration, such as chardonnay. This limits the available space in the refrigerator, but prosciutto and cheese are better when not refrigerated anyway. In case of an earthquake we could eat pasta with little onions and prosciutto for days and forget the bloom for a year. The wine cellar had hundreds of bottles, some going back to 1964, the year the house was built. We even had stored water, hard hats, power generator, some small cash etc. We were indeed quite ready for an earthquake but not for what was to come in a few hours.
By ten o'clock my tennis match was well in the middle of the first set. The easterly gusts of wind swirled the leaves and made strange shots out of a cleanly hit balls. We won the first set quite easily by a quarter past ten, but lost the second. By then I kept watching the sky which was becoming more and more yellow. No doubt, we had another fire somewhere in the direction of my home.
The third set began with the sun becoming a dirty yellow ball and I wondered why we hear no fire sirens. At the set score 4:4 the sun went from yellow to orange and I wished we won the second set; there was room for concern, I should be home.
Berkeley Tennis Club is one of the best places to listen to fire engines go by. One can hardly play a few sets without the trumpets sounding. But not today. It is 6:6 in the third set and not a single engine has gone by, no helicopters, nothing. Just the brown sun is telling us that something is seriously burning.
I never liked the tie break in the final set. It leaves the whole match hanging on only two points. But today I was grateful for it, knowing that will all be over in a few minutes. Indeed it was, but not the way I expected it. We won.
It turned out to be the most expensive victory in the history of tennis. To Lendl, winning a quarter finals match means a few hundred thousand dollars more. To me, it meant a few hundred thousand dollars less. The fire I was watching throughout the third set was about to reach our house in a few minutes.
It takes only three minutes from Berkeley Tennis Club to 75 Hiller Drive, and perhaps it took a minute longer this time. A stream of cars was coming downhill and at Hiller intersection I had to make a fancy maneuver into the left lane to sneak past the policeman who desperately tried his best to keep anyone from going uphill. Downhill traffic on Hiller drive looked like the blitzkrieg refugees of 1941 have returned in their 1990 model cars. Some were even on foot. Walking around was definitely a bad idea. It began to rain chunks of fire and instantly reminded me of my years spent in Australia.
Eucalyptus, a native tree of Australia, creates spectacular forest fires that burn with a speed of some ten miles per hour without wind. This explains why Australia has so many kangaroos and rabbits and so few koala bears. Add to this some wind and three hundred attached wooden homes of Hiller Highlands with cedar sidings and you have a blow torch.
A Jaguar with its top off is not exactly a car to drive when pieces of flaming tar paper are falling from the sky, but Nadine said "come home right away", and so I did. It was not quite noon yet, but the street lights turned themselves on. Were it not for flames all around me it would be hard to see. Seeing that Nadine has left I took off downhill and passed her car waiting to turn into the standstill traffic for Berkeley. The other direction of the Tunnel Road seemed impassable by a wall of fire generated by a grove of dense eucalyptus on either side. A bearded fellow with a backpack, perhaps one of our resident local homeless, turned to me with a great advice: "leave your car and walk to Berkeley". He went from a car to a car giving the same advice. Fortunately nobody listened. It would clog the street for police, who were already there, and fire trucks, who were about to arrive. The 911 recordings we heard later told us that there were people burning alive in some Hiller Highlands houses at that time. Some were saved by police and firemen who drove into the path of the blowtorch breathing down the slope of Hiller Drive.
Suddenly, even the leaves on the ground started to burn. "Follow me" I yelled to Nadine, pressed my head towards the windshield and stepped on gas. In a second I was past the wall of flaming eucalyptus fire and under the eight lanes of highway 24. A moment later I stopped on the other side. On my right was lake Temescal, peaceful with the substantial Sunday crowd on the beach, birds tweeting, sun shining, a perfect Sunday noon. A ten minute wait is a long wait on the freeway. But Nadine apparently did not follow me through the wall of fire. Could she survive the traffic jam heading into Berkeley with fire all around it?
When a CHP patrolman came to close the freeway I had to move. Just as well, for in a few minutes the fire jumped all eight lanes of traffic. Even the median, which is planted with a single row of evergreen bushes, caught fire. This was a stroke of luck for the Tunnel Road traffic into Berkeley. It was safe. The wind changed direction, now heading towards Lake Temescal and Piedmont and away from Berkeley.
Nadine and I soon found each other and our first coordinated move was to meet at Safeway parking lot to plan the next move. We declared ourselves homeless and contemplated stealing a shopping cart, but with a Jaguar and a Mercedes in tow we decided to test the private welfare system, or as President Bush calls it "the thousand points of light". We knocked on the door of Fred and Manya Casto in Alameda. Surprise! And we even brought the dog with us...
Within one hour Heldmans offered an unfurnished apartment in Berkeley - but this one was still in the path of firestorm. Ten minutes after Dmitri Dedenko called and offered a brand new furnished apartment in Martinez. My tennis partner dr. Bob McIvor volunteered to share his seldom used house in Orinda. Then came the magnificent offer from dr. Margot Woodard to use her Orinda home. It is some home! Fully maintained garden and pool. Even bar was stocked. Other offers came in, but that is where we are staying. In Margot's house it would be a pleasure to stay even if our house wouldn't have burned down.
But it did. It gave us a strange feeling initially, almost like being dead and starting an afterlife. You are stripped of all possessions, yet your friends and family are all around you.
How about the government? They too are supposed to help us, says media. Perhaps they will, but we know the story of the man in the Texas flood. In case you haven't heard it, here's what happened:
The flood waters were rising in Texas up to the roofs, but one fellow would not leave. He climbed on the roof. A neighbor came by with a row boat. "Jump in", he said. "No, I'll stay", replied the man on the roof, "I don't need anybody's help. I believe in God and He will take care of me". A few hours later the water was over the roof sloshing around his feet. A police motorboat came by, but the fellow on the roof will not go: "Good God took care of me until now and He will this time too." But the water just kept rising, and was soon up to his chin. A Coast Guard helicopter showed up and sent a noose down: "Man, this is your last chance!" - But to no avail. Water grew higher, the man drowned and instantly went to heaven. Soon he was brought in front of the Almighty. "What happened, God", accused Texan, "I had faith in you, I trusted you, and you let me down?!" "What do you mean I let you down?" thundered God, "I sent to you two boats and a helicopter!"
We will never forget all the boats and helicopters that we have used to date and also the others that we have not. Fortunately, we are spared from the overwhelming task of immediately replacing our household goods. Except for clothing and computers, we have hardly begun buying anything, for, Chateau Margot, as we call it, has everything. But I am already tired of cutting labels and removing pins, every time I get dressed. And have you read the instructions booklets lately? Usually first five pages are DO NOTs. I am afraid to even buy an eraser, God only knows what will they tell me not to do with it and what may be harmful to my health, public safety, and environment.
Certainly our top priority is to rebuild, for the great view and location did not burn down. Almost three months have passed and the blueprints for the new house will be done as soon as the foundations can be inspected and measured. The debris clean up is about one month behind schedule. We think that the clean-up crew does not want to appear too swift and one-up our Oakland fire chief.
During the first days after the firestorm there was a lot of political hoopla and everyone came to look at us. Even President Bush declared us a disaster area. He was never more right, especially if he included the City Hall. He may have, for a disaster area is supposed to immediately receive some government funds. We do not know any private individual who has received any yet.
The local government is the big winner in this fire. A couple of billion dollars of insurance money will trickle down through direct and indirect sales taxes, amounting to at least two hundred million dollars. We expect to pay in 1992 about $50,000 in sales taxes alone - just to replace what was destroyed by fire. Government is even getting extra revenue from renewals of burnt documents. To reissue my citizenship paper was $50, replacing a passport was $43, DMV asked full fee to replace pink slips, City of Oakland wants $4,000 for the "re-building" permit, etc., etc.
On the other hand the person to person welfare indeed works. Local businesses are helping and many are still giving substantial discounts if you come from the right address. We hardly buy a non-food item these days that does not carry a 20% "homeless discount". A number of our airline tickets burnt, some had to be recredited, new credit cards had to be issued, checks etc. All was done free of charge, even reissue of Egyptian visas was complimentary.
In spite of a flood of money coming our way we are not sure if the two billion dollar injection from insurance companies will do much for the Oakland's hard core unemployed. So far we have heard mainly Spanish language on the hills that need to be cleared of burnt trees and shrubs. Contractors are arriving from all over the States. City of Oakland can probably only reduce unemployment by an enhanced Affirmative Action Program. Two people for each job: one who can read and one who can write, if they can find them. Alas, they could be handling our building permits. If this happens we will be writing to you our 1992 Christmas cards from a trailer.
Eucalyptus cut in 1971 caused no erosion - all of them have grown back, albeit ugly thin shoots replaced big wide trunks. Just take a drive through Tilden park on Berkeley hills and see.
Anyone who has ever fell a eucalyptus tree can tell you that you can cut an eucalyptus tree to the ground - but its root system remains alive for years. Shoots will appear in a few weeks and grow over ten feet in a year. There is hardly a hardier tree than eucalyptus; neither fire nor freeze will destroy it. The only way to kill the eucalyptus is to strip it every few months of its new shoots, and in three to five years it will die.
Our City government now wants to leave us with another Oakland landmark - charred eucalyptus trunks. Presumably, in November, the same city experts marked our redwoods with big yellow C's, meaning "cut!". We refused to cut them and today they have a foot long shoots already.
Finally, our house plans are almost finished and even the City building permits situation looks more promising. Although the permit paper to rebuild will cost us some $4000 this will keep the experts from being unemployed for a while longer.
We have made a substantial progress this summer. Both of us went to England to replace one of the cars that melted down - Peugeot's aluminum block simply dissolved like a gallon of ice cream. We timed it with Wimbledon and visited the quaint Cotswolds without much ado except for an occasional close shave in a car that is made for the right side of the road but must remain on the left side. The rest of time we spent drinking teas and saying please-thank-you and all that...
The exciting unpredictables of life returned once we reached France. In Brittany farmers welcomed us with mountains of potatoes (I can assure you it's spelled correctly) on the roads. This prepared us for truck barricades one week later. By then I was able to squeeze the big Jag without a scratch between columns of trucks and still wave to "les camionistes" - and sometimes even to the gendarmes. But the good humor prevailed and truckers and police made the best out of the mess, built fires, probably drank a case of wine or two pulled off a truck, and let us pass through the gaps.
The rest of the trip was indeed without miracles unless you consider driving in Florence and Rome without a scratch a small wonder. Nadine flew home from Rome and arrived to San Francisco with the usual eight hour delay, what points to a severe need for a saint of air travelers. She hit the ground running and reviewed the bids for the house, selected the contractor and got the building permit - all in one week.
We are again enjoying Chateau Margot with its gardens and pool during a magnificent Indian summer. We will stay here until the house is ready. The projected date is end of March. Nadine visits the construction site daily and has even helped to construct one interior wall. She can handle a hammer pretty well, but she stayed away from pouring the concrete. So far it took twenty trucks - it seems that the engineers are designing now houses for the Big One. One of nice surprises also is the garden. Redwoods look as if we had no fire at all. Oleanders appear better then before and wild rhododendrons are loaded with buds. Olive trees also came back - with two meter shoots. The stories that conquering armies never wanted to destroy olive orchards are a pure fiction - simply, the soldiers never could destroy the roots. This is the small contribution of the Firestorm to the professors of history.