It’s a small world: Meeting 1991 Oakland fire survivors in Seattle

Andrew Cockburn speaking at a conference in Seattle, March 30, 2016
Andrew Cockburn speaking at a conference in Seattle, March 30, 2016

I attended a conference in Seattle last week about the many sources of pollution in our water and what that means for the seafood we eat:  “Clean Waters = Healthy Seafood.”  I always learn something new at these conferences, but this was also a case of serendipity.

Andrew Cockburn was the keynote speaker at the conference. He is the author of “Weed Whackers:  Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species,” published by Harper’s Magazine in September 2015 (available here: Cockburn – Weed Whackers ).  The 1991 fire in the Oakland hills is used in that article as an example of how native plant advocates use “cover stories” such as flammability to convince the public to eradicate non-native plants and trees.  And so, that fire was mentioned in passing at our table of conference attendees.

Tilden Park, Berkeley. Courtesy Save the East Bay Hills
Tilden Park, Berkeley. Courtesy Save the East Bay Hills

Much to my surprise, a couple at our table volunteered that they are survivors of that fire.  They defended eucalyptus trees, based on their experience.  I asked them to write up their experiences to share with our readers and here is what they sent for publication:

“I grew up in Virginia and spent some time in Colorado, Florida, Bermuda, the Philippines, and Japan while in the Navy.  I was living in South Carolina in 1989 when I made my first trip to the SF Bay Area.  It was in late October, just after the earthquake.  I had come to the Bay Area to interview for a job with the Environmental Protection Agency.  I was hired and moved to San Francisco in January 1990.

Initially, I was living on a sailboat near Brisbane, but by June I had rented a studio apartment in a small Montclair house in the Oakland Hills.  From the beginning, I was smitten with my new home.  While having lived in a variety of places, I was drawn to the mystical aspects of the area.  I was especially drawn to the volcanoes, redwoods, and eucalyptus.  Even now, 26 years later, I am taken back to my early days in the Bay Area when I see or smell a eucalyptus tree.  I remember the excitement of the new work and meeting my wife who is a Bay Area native.

We were married in June 1991, and lived together in the Montclair studio.  It was a truly magical, but short-lived time for us.  The fire came in October.  We understand that some transient campers started it in a canyon near the Caldecott tunnel on Saturday.  The Fire Department thought they had extinguished the fire, but the Santa Ana winds on Sunday whipped new life into the embers, which in turn caused the massive wildfire.  Our home was destroyed.  As uninsured newlywed renters, it was devastating.  Fortunately though, we survived, as did our cats.  Some of our friends and neighbors were not so fortunate.

We stayed in our home through most of the day as the fire moved through the area.  When the fire got close we knew we had to go and so our neighbors and we evacuated.  It was hot and dry before the fire and everything burned.    The only things left standing in our neighborhood on Monday were brick chimneys.

That was a long time ago in our lives.  We live near Seattle, WA now.  It came as a shock to learn last week that there is an effort underway to remove the eucalyptus from the East Bay.  We are told that it is because the eucalyptus “exploded” during the 1991, firestorm.  Well, I can tell you that they did burn with fervor, but so did everything else including the more native trees and plants.  The eucalyptuses, while not being “native”, have established themselves as a solid part of the Bay Area.  It would not be the same there without the eucalyptus and to scapegoat them for the 1991, firestorm is short sighted.  The same hot and dry conditions and large supply of fuel on the ground will be ripe for a repeat whether or not the eucalyptuses are there.”

Scott West
Special Agent-in-Charge, Retired
Criminal Investigation Division
US Environmental Protection Agency

Scott doesn’t mention in this account that the fire was very hard on marriages and he was pleased to tell me that his very recent marriage was made immediately stronger by the ordeal of finding a new place to live and replacing all of their belongs.  So, when his wife, Suzanne, chimed in with the following addition to Scott’s story, it seemed a fitting example of the teamwork that began in 1991 and continues to this day:

“No, I think you covered it quite well. One thing you could add is that after the fire in October, we purchased a home in the Hayward hills (Dec 1991) and it backed up to a fence line which contained a big grove of eucalyptus trees.  We had no fear of these trees posing a huge fire threat, and we had just been through the biggest area fire in anyone’s memory. We loved that grove and the wildlife that lived there and were frequent visitors to our yard – deer, fox, raccoons. We also had 3 indoor/outdoor cats and I swear that the grove was the reason we never had any major issue with fleas.”

Suzanne West
Executive Director
Sarvey Wildlife Care Center

And Scott, adds to their shared memory:

“Good point Suzanne.

That grove was illegally cut while we lived there and it was a blow to us.  We loved those trees.  And don’t forget the opossum.”


I am very grateful for Scott and Suzanne’s willingness to tell us their story.  We know they are not alone in their assessment of the 1991 fire.  We have received many similar comments over the many years we have worked on this issue from other survivors of the 1991 fire.  We do not think the Wests’ experiences are unique.

View of Seattle from the Space Needle, with Mount Rainier in the distance. It was a beautiful day on March 29, 2016.



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