Fires Hurt the Poor More

Satellite image of the 1991 Oakland firestorm. Image: NASA.

October 21, 1991, Berkeley, California.

The worst urban fire in California’s history: I drove last night across the Bay Bridge from the San Francisco side at around 9 PM and met the warm, slightly acrid smell of wood smoke about halfway over. Directly ahead, through the superstructure of the bridge, I could see a glow up the hillside, red at its heart and then darkening into a smoky crimson at the fringes, like a Turner watercolor.

The airports around the Bay were reporting near-zero wind velocity, and though this meant that humid sea breezes weren’t blowing in from the Pacific, the flames were no longer being whipped by Northeasterlies–Santa Anas–coming in from the Central Valley, through the canyons and ravines at forty to fifty miles an hour, driving down the humidity as low as 10 percent, leaving acre after acre of some of the highest priced real estate in Northern California ready to explode.

The neighborhoods of Claremont, Montclair and Rockridge, contain expensive houses, creeping up the hillsides, perching over narrow ravines, patch-working themselves up toward the ridges. Decade upon decade the Bay Area’s realtors have grazed off the dreams of the upwardly mobile. The Claremont Hotel itself, featured all through Sunday as a point of desperate resistance to the fire’s westward march, was completed in 1908 as a giant billboard to advertise the joys of high-priced East Bay real estate. It was right here, around 1910, that exclusionary-use zoning was born. The fortunes of those now homeless from the blaze–the old rich, the new rich, those who inherited and those who amassed their wealth in the Reagan-Bush years–were points on a speculative curve that began to rise a century ago.

Earthquakes tend to favor the rich, whose houses have secure foundations. The shacks and tract houses of the poor jump off their piers and break their backs. After the Loma Prieta earthquake of October 1989, which rippled out from its epicenter in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one could see clearly in a town like Watsonville how prudent but necessarily more costly foundations could save a house.

The rich in the Marina District in San Francisco who lost homes did so because the real estate industry had exploited unsuitable landfill and because budgetary cutbacks had reduced maintenance crews capable of turning off gas mains and the like. But though one would not have known it from most of the press, the rich were not the prime victims of Loma Prieta. Fires hurt the poor more too. People are always being burned alive in tenements, though the news stories are always about wildfires menacing big homes.


Dick Walker, who teaches at UC Berkeley, outlined to me some of the social geography of the disaster. His neighbor came by looking for decongestants. He was sheltering a refugee, Rand Langenbach, an architectural historian and c0-author of Amoskeog, an elegy to the nineteenth-century mill town of Manchester, New Hampshire. At 1:30 that afternoon Langenbach–someone who had campaigned fiercely to protect earthquake-damaged brick buildings from the wrecker’s ball–had watched helplessly as 35,000 photographic slides of nineteenth-century buildings burned blue when his house went up and, as was happening all around the East Bay, his history turned to ash.

No one will ever know–though the insurance adjusters will get nearest the truth–how much history went up in smoke. In the days that followed I heard of one major private collection of pre-Columbian objects that had gone, of some libraries stuffed with rare things. Fire is final. Even the ancient history submerged by such dams as Aswan exists beneath the waters. But a pot once carried by an Aztec, a vase from the Ming Dynasty, are forever gone. And that abrupt termination of their presence on Earth and in history has poignancy. Here was the Aztec pot, entombed, uncovered, smuggled, bought, resold, hoarded in the East Bay fortress, traveling down through time in all its manifold reincarnations, suddenly volatilized at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, conclusively part of temps perdu.

This is excerpted from The Golden Age is In Us.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.