Remembering the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm
On Sunday, October 20, 1991, the hills above Oakland and Berkeley, California, were ravaged by an extraordinary firestorm. Immediately, KCRA-TV, in Sacramento, dispatched every available crew and as many other photographers and reporters who they could reach on their days off and sent them in to cover this unbelievable event. In a matter of just a few hours over 2,500 of the most beautiful homes in the most desirably locations in the Bay Area were ravaged by fire and, quite literally, disappeared into scattered ashes.
The next day, all of KCRA’s photographers and reporters were sent in to cover what was left and the dazed reaction of the residents. I had never seen devastation so complete. Being driven through the devastated areas the next day by police, it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. In some places there were just cement foundations and piles of nails, the winds had been so intense that even the ashes were gone.
The reactions of people on-camera was so open and amazing, yet when it came time to edit our footage down into one and a half minute news stories we were all having to discard huge chucks of unbelievable material. The footage that we broadcast was riveting, but we could have easily broadcast a whole evening of news with the the mass of footage we had gathered. After I had cut my story I went around looking over the shoulders of other photographers at what they had gotten. I crushed me that so much of what we had filmed didn’t have the time to get on the air that night.
The next day I pushed to news director Bill Bauman, one of the best people I’ve ever worked for, for the station to let me put together a half-hour special using only the sounds and pictures of the events of that week. His response was, “Go do it.” I gathered all the tapes and, with producer Rhonda Cokely and KCRA anchors Stan Atkinson and Carol Bland, we put this together. I have never before or since done a half hour program where there wasn’t a single bit of written narration.
This program aired exactly two weeks after the firestorm took place on KCRA-TV.