September 26 / 27 is the 75th anniversary of one of the five largest wildfires of the 20th century to burn the west side of the Berkeley Hills. Scorching at least a square mile of land south of today’s Highway 24 and the Caldecott Tunnel, the fire burned for more than a day and threatened both Oakland and Berkeley residential neighborhoods.
In Oakland, a few houses burned and scores of residents fled. When firefighters thought they had the fire beaten, water shortages helped it take off again in the middle of the night. If the same area burned today, hundreds of homes would be destroyed, as they were in the same area in the 1991 Firestorm.
In Berkeley, volunteers turned out in the middle of the night to rush to the fire lines and prevent the resurgent blaze from spreading north into the hills and reaching the University town.
Despite the drama and extent of those events—including a two-AM city-wide alert that roused Berkeley residents—1937 is largely a forgotten fire. It is certainly recorded in lists of major conflagrations in the East Bay, but doesn’t seem to have a historical presence otherwise. It’s far overshadowed in living memory by the 1991 Oakland Firestorm, and in history by the 1923 Berkeley Fire.
There are some interesting and sobering parallels between 1937 and 1991. In both events, the fire began on a hot Fall Saturday southeast of Berkeley and billowing smoke was visible to spectators at a Cal football game in Memorial Stadium. Each blaze seemed to be under control on Saturday, but flared to dangerous activity again the next day.
There were two crucial differences, however. First, in 1991, Diablo winds blew off the ridgeline, sending the rejuvenated fire on its destructive course downhill into Oakland and Berkeley. In 1937, although the temperatures were high, what wind there was came off the Bay and apparently nudged the flames into the still-undeveloped hills and away from the lower elevations.
Second, the hill areas of Oakland were still sparsely developed in 1937. If a fire burned the same area today as in 1937, hundreds of homes would be within its footprint. As it was, there were fears of considerable property destruction 75 years ago, and scores of families fled their homes—some of them newly built—with few or no belongings.
(This article is not comprehensive, but simply an attempt to sketch out, primarily from contemporary newspaper reports, what happened in 1937. It’s not a full history of that fire, by any means. There are presumably more detailed and illuminating public records and personal accounts that could be located by someone with more time for research.)
Heat blanketed the Bay Area and temperatures had climbed above 90 degrees that Indian Summer Saturday, September 25, 1937, as tens of thousands flocked to California Memorial Stadium to watch the Golden Bears battle St. Mary’s. “Football fans…sweltered in their seats, and as the gridmen chased the pig-skin, their playing suits became soaked with perspiration”, the Oakland Tribune said.
(The Golden Bears would defeat St. Mary’s 30-7 that day, finish as Pacific Coast champions with a 10-0-1 record, field 4 All-Americans, and end the season ranked #1 nationally. It was also the last time California won the Rose Bowl, beating Alabama 13-0.)
In San Francisco it was the hottest day of the year—88 degrees. A 48-year-old Berkeley man died, apparently of heatstroke, in Oakland. Many sought relief at Lake Temescal where, due to the gifts of civic groups, swimming was free for the first time that year. A 19 year-old Oakland man nearly drowned there Saturday, venturing into deep water while trying to swim across the lake. Scores watched while a lifeguard pulled him from the water and a fire department “inhaler crew” worked for half an hour to revive him.
Not far to the east of the Lake, more potential disaster was brewing. A bonfire fire was started “near a home at 707 Mountain Boulevard early Saturday afternoon,” the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported the next day. The Oakland Tribune initially reported it as “of undetermined cause, apparently near the home of Police Inspector Jesse Jackson, at 6019 Pinehaven (sic) Road,” a location that’s actually rather far to the southeast from the likely site.
In following days, the cause and address were further muddled. 52 year-old W.K. Driggs was arrested for not getting a permit to start a rubbish fire behind a house he had rented at 6064 (sic) Mountain Boulevard, the Tribune reported. The Tribune said “the fire got away from him and spread up a canyon, he explained, before he had any opportunity to call firemen.”
(The address given in the arrest article may well have been a mistake, since the 6000 block of Mountain Boulevard is, today at least, far south near Mills College. And 6019 Pinehaven seems too away from the starting point; that claim may reflect a reporter contacting a usual source in the Police Department. Sorting through the articles, an address on the uphill side of the 600 or 700 block of Mountain Boulevard would seem most likely as the vicinity of the initial ignition.)
Whatever the starting point, the fire ran uphill to the east and north into steep, dry, wooded, slopes and canyons. It “spread fanwise through numerous gullies and reached up to Broadway Terrace and Skyline Boulevard about midnight Saturday”, the Tribune said. The articles don’t mention much wind—a key, and fortunate, circumstance.
Oakland firemen reached the blaze “shortly before 3 pm” reported the Tribune. “During the first six hours the fire had burned across the western edge of the Pinehaven district, up Broadway Terrace to a point just below the Skyline Boulevard, and back down another Canyon to the west.”
“An abnormally high temperature which combined with the heat of the flames to leave the fire-fighters sweltering, and the difficulty of getting water into all of the hill areas, hampered the crews all during the afternoon and evening.”
The fire initially burned through “a sparsely settled area of the Pinehaven district, and this fact, coupled with the aid by volunteers, had prevented a conflagration that might have engulfed scores of expensive homes (Oakland) Fire Chief Lutkey said” in the Oakland Tribune that Sunday morning. “Acre upon acre of brush and trees, including eucalyptus that sent a pungent pall of smoke pouring over much of Oakland, was burned over in the fire.”
On Saturday, “the first outbreak of the flames…sent heavy clouds of smoke and flame high into the air so that the billowing flame-tinted black clouds were easily seen by spectators at the…football game,” the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported. A public announcement was made at Memorial Stadium that Berkeley firefighters should report to the department.
In Berkeley, the hot temperatures and towering columns of smoke would have reminded thousands of residents of the disastrous conflagration they had witnessed just 14 years earlier in 1923, a fire that destroyed some 600 buildings and burned from the North Berkeley ridgeline to the edge of Downtown.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, “families fled their homes in fear” the Tribune said. “Others who sought to save their belongings were ordered out by firemen.” Five homes were “blackened on Upper Broadway Terrace”. Houses were damaged or burned in the 3000 block of Ruthland Road, and the 5500 block of Gwin Road.
(Newspaper accounts variously listed two, three, four, or five houses destroyed, and more than 50 endangered. The discrepancy may have been from early reports that included damaged homes or those that looked like they would surely burn. Three houses destroyed was the number given in the last article I could find, nearly a week after the fire when an accurate account, presumably, would have been available.)
“Scores of residents of the area left their homes empty-handed, too excited to gather up any of their belongings; others snatched up pet animals, blankets and cash.” “Those who rushed from their homes found vantage points on nearby hills to watch the progress of the fire, which at times crept slowly through brush and at other times leaped from treetop to treetop.” Other residents searched empty homes to release animals—including dogs and rabbits—from the path of the fire.
Mrs. Maeguerite Risley of Farralone Way gave the Tribune an eyewitness account, describing how her extended family fled a gathering. “When the fireman rushed up the hill and told us that we would have to get out right away as a draft was shooting up the canyon, the whole four generations crammed into our sedan and we drove about two miles away where we stood on a hill and watched the fire creep up toward our home…we could see the fire creep right up to our back door. “
“Meanwhile the firemen had connected up hoses and were playing the water on our house. Even so the roof of the houses caught…and all the window panes facing the west, from where the fire came, were cracked by the heat. We said goodbye to our home and tears were streaming down the cheeks of my mother…” Their house, however, apparently did survive.
Mrs. C.F. Humphrey of Broadway Terrace told the Tribune she was busy with house work and “glanced at the fire occasionally over a period of an hour before I realized our home was menaced…I rolled up a pile of blankets and placed them in the car as I thought that I might have to sleep out tonight. I took my silverware and some private belongings and also did not forget to take along ‘Skipper’ my little canary bird.” She also watched the fire from a nearby hill, saying, “…the blaze skipped from tree to tree, until in a few moments it was within a half block of our house.” Her home survived also.
Fifteen firefighters on Gwin Road were surrounded by the fire on Saturday, but escaped. Hundreds of feet of hose laid across the hillsides burned. At various times the fire threatened the big P.G. and E. power substation and related high voltage lines near Lake Temescal, and office buildings around the west portal of the as-yet-unopened Low Level Broadway Tunnel (today’s Caldecott).
“An abnormally high temperature, which combined with the heat of the flames to leave the fire fighters sweltering, and the difficulty of getting water into all of the hill areas, hampered the crews all during the afternoon and evening” on Saturday.
Finally, after dark and after more than six hours, the flames seemed abated. But, anticipating a possible flare up, the Berkeley fire department had stationed watchers and run an emergency telephone line “from the fire switch board to a point near the west portal of the tunnel on the old Tunnel Road.”
The caution was merited. Water pressure dropped for Oakland firefighters. “Lack of water caused by exhaustion of reservoirs in the hill region hampered the fire fighters”, the Tribune reported. “Residents who sought to wet down the roofs of their homes found they could not get enough pressure to do so.”
“…water gave out in the Pinehaven reservoir”, the Gazette reported. “It was then necessary to pump water in relays from lower areas. Three inch mains…gave only 25 gallons of water a minute despite the capacity of the fire engines to pump 1,000 gallons a minute.”
Hoses connected fire engines over a route of about half a mile to reach the danger area on upper Broadway Terrace. The Tribune said “the fire was believed under control at 9 pm” (the Gazette said 7 pm) “but it was just after that that the wind increased and the blaze began crackling rapidly through pine and fir toward the intersection of Pineneedle Road and Upper Broadway Terrace.”
“The blaze suddenly gained impetus shortly after 1 o’clock…” in the morning the Gazette said. “When the flames jumped across Skyline Boulevard and leaped high out of control in renewed activities shortly after midnight Saturday night, (Berkeley) Assistant Fire chief John Eichelberger, in charge at the look out station…flashed a warning to Fire chief George Haggerty. All off-duty firemen—50 in number—were immediately roused from bed and rushed to cut off the new outbreak. Three water wagons and one Berkeley fire engine also were sent to battle the fire.”
“They halted a wall of flame as it tried viciously to leap the old Tunnel Road and spread out in the dry timber back of Berkeley, but… the flames spread fanwise eastward, out of control.” The city put an emergency plan into effect, and Chief Haggerty threw a switch at 2:06 am, Sunday morning.
Berkeley residents were thus awakened in the midst of the night by the “shrill scream of the siren” mounted atop Berkeley’s tallest downtown building, the American Trust tower at Center and Shattuck (it’s now the Wells Fargo Building).
Installed in the aftermath of the 1923 Berkeley Fire, the siren was intended to alert emergency workers that they were needed. It had apparently only been used once before, just to summons off-duty firemen for the 1933 Oakland Hills fire.
When it sounded again in 1937, the call was more widespread. “Volunteers and city employees began flocking to the city corporation yard at Santa Fe Avenue and Allston Way. There city trucks, loaded with tins of water and wet sacks, were ready to rush them to the battle area,” the Gazette reported.
“Including the 50 off-duty firemen, a total of 249 Berkeleyans responded to the disaster alarm. This however, according to (Fire) Chief Haggerty, does not include the many unofficial volunteers—Berkeley residents who made their own way to the fire lines.”
The city responders included “city employees from the sanitary bureau, the park department, recreation division and off-duty police officers.” They were augmented by 70 youths from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in Wildcat Canyon.
Another 400 to 450 volunteers from the American Legion assembled at the Veterans Memorial Building downtown and the Key System interurban railroad “had also volunteered to send out a force of more than 200 men, if needed.”
They apparently weren’t. “The swarm of workers first rushed into the hills had already set backfires and isolated the flames in many areas”, said the Gazette the next day. “City Manager Hollis R. Thompson, who had watched the fire fighters in the hills throughout the night, expressed satisfaction today after the smoothness with which Division A of the disaster plan had operated” the paper added.
Thompson had only one criticism he relayed to the paper. “Persons interested in the cause of the siren blast seriously hindered both (police and fire) departments by making telephone calls immediately after the siren sounded. I appeal to Berkeleyans to discontinue this practice, or at least to withhold their calls to the police and fire departments for a reasonable length of time after the siren is used.”
Although many of the Berkeley volunteers were released by 7:00 am Sunday morning, the fire was not extinguished until 9:30 on Sunday night, 31 hours after it began, the papers said. “Backfiring and work in isolated fires in small clumps of brush and trees ended the firefighting last night in the region of Old Tunnel Road,” the Tribune reported the next day. “The latter work was regarded as more or less minor, the heaviest fire having been during the early hours of the morning.”
And well after the fire was supposedly out, there was a flare-up in drifts of pine needles along a hill road that had to be suppressed.
For some of the Berkeley municipal employees who had responded in the middle of the night to help fight the fire, the workday didn’t end with the fire danger. That Sunday, parks employees headed up to North Berkeley to participate in the opening of the Berkeley Rose Garden, which coincidently lay along the edge of the 1923 Berkeley Fire zone.
And quite possibly for Berkeley’s fire fighters, it seemed a week of no rest for the weary. At 1:07 am on the night of September 27/28, they were dispatched to deal with a new middle-of-the-night wild lands fire behind the California School for the Blind (now the University’s Clark Kerr campus). A second alarm was called less that half an hour later.
“Running up a gulch near Stonewall Road, the blaze quickly spread through approximately an acre of eucalyptus trees and flames leaped high into the sky as a layer of dead leaves, more than a foot deep under the trees, added to the fury of the fire,” the Gazette reported in its edition of the 28th. “Apparently started by a cigarette tossed from a machine by some motorist on Tanglewood Road, the fire actually occurred in Oakland, just across the Berkeley line, but the local department responded first because of the inaccessibility of the area from Oakland.”
Firemen had to “drag heavy hose lines through the brush and hill area. Several homes in the section would have been endangered by flying sparks had they not had fireproof roofs…Smoldering stumps and hot embers flared up again shortly before noon, but were quickly extinguished.”
That same day—Tuesday—the City Manager, in his reports to the City Council, included the following statement:
“That at the fire in Oakland last Sunday morning a portion of the City’s Disaster Preparedness Plan was brought into action and that various City groups responded with great efficiency and got into action without delay; that last Friday a meeting on the Disaster Preparedness Plan had been held in the Council Chamber to renew and refresh their memories and that the Plan worked with great smoothness and efficiency; that the fire might have been very disastrous if a heavy wind had been blowing. He (Manager Hollis Thompson) commended the employees of the Bureau of Parks of the Recreation Department, Garbage Department, Bureau of Streets of the Public Works Department, Fire and Police Departments, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, and the East Bay Transit Company who all worked so effectively.”
The Council minutes record, “On motion of Councilman Hoyt, seconded by Councilman Gaines, a resolution was adopted commending the various groups on their efficient work in controlling the fire.”
(It seems petty, in hindsight, that Berkeley would officially commend all those departments and businesses with no mention of the Oakland Fire Department that bore the brunt of fighting the big fire, but perhaps the Berkeley resolution only listed those in Berkeley, and intended no slight.)
Even before the fire was fully extinguished, finger pointing began among public agencies. “Fire Chief William G. Lutkey, of Oakland, blamed the spread of the flames on the lack of water and declared the fire water service in the foothills entirely inadequate,” the Gazette said.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District responded with a detailed rebuttal in the Oakland Tribune the day after the fire. “John S. Longwell, chief engineer and general manager…said shortage of water was ‘in no way a contributing factor’ in the loss sustained in the week-end fire. Men and equipment of the district, he said, played an important part in fighting the fire.”
“Longwell said: ‘A large part of the area is not subdivided and contains no streets and no roads and of course no water mains. The part along Broadway Terrace is served by the Pinehaven No. 1 storage tanks at elevation 1,150, having a capacity of 300,000 gallons. This is the mains storage for the area and is supplied by pumps fed from a lower storage system. At no time during the fire was the storage in the tank below 120,000 gallons and much more water was available. A small tank at elevation 1,350 above the Skyline Boulevard serves a few houses too high to be reached from the 200,000 gallon tank. This tank holds but 40,000 gallons and is provided to supply domestic water to the higher area. This is the small tank referred to as going empty, and is of course not designed for supplying water in large quantities, as this is taken care of by the larger tank. However, the 40,000 gallons in this tank was used and did effective work while it lasted.
Additional storage is provided on the west side of the canyon, in which the fire took place from a 100,000 gallon tank at elevation 1,350. Water from this tank supplies the west portal of the Broadway Low Level Tunnel, and here also water was available at all times during the fire.”
“Fighting fires such as this one, in a brushy and wooded country with steep slopes, differs materially from fire fighting in the business and residential sections. Backfiring, together with the use of specially designed portable fire trucks equipped with water tanks, is used effectively’, he concluded.”
Longwell gave credit to the CCC crews and an EBMUD fire truck for work at the upper end of the fire area “near Grizzly Peak Boulevard and above Skyline Boulevard.”
EBMUD board secretary T. J. Roberts added that Lake Temescal could be used for a back-up fire fighting water supply “if the city financed reservoirs and piping.”
The public sparring between agencies seems, from the limited evidence of the newspaper articles, to have involved some apples and oranges assertions. EBMUD was probably right in listing the aggregate water available in the area and noting that there weren’t big street mains available in areas that hadn’t been built up, but the key argument made by the Oakland Fire Department was that three inch lines couldn’t supply enough for the pumpers to effectively use once the upper reservoir went dry.
At that point—when the fire was far uphill—the amount of water in tanks at lower elevations wouldn’t have mattered much, since a precarious system of hoses and pumpers had to be cobbled together to bring it up in insignificant quantities.
As with many wildfires of the now-distant past, the area burned in 1937 is ambiguous. Most lists you’ll find, on-line at least, say the 1937 fire burned 700 acres, or slightly over a square mile. That would make it the fifth largest recorded fire in the East Bay hills in the 20th century.
The area shown on the Tribune map—which went to press while the fire was still burning—seems to show the fire running close to a mile uphill, as the crow flies, and a narrower zone from north to south.
But the newspaper articles at the time reported anywhere from nine square miles (initially estimated by Oakland’s fire chief in the Tribune on Sunday) to an astonishing 14 square miles (the Gazette). On Monday, however, the Tribune added “estimates of the area burned varied from two to nine square miles.”
This all bears some scrutiny. When I researched the 1923 Berkeley Fire several years ago, it was clear that the standard accounts of its extent focused mainly on the burned area within Berkeley city limits, and may well have left out additional large acreages burned in the undeveloped hills further to the south and east, after the Diablo winds died down.
Something similar may have been the case with the 1937 fire. In addition, in the massively folded topography of the hills the difference between “square miles” on a flat map and actual acres on the tilted ground can be considerably different. Finally, with fires that burn grassland and brush, even the passage of a single winter / spring seasonal cycle can obliterate obvious traces with new greenery and growth.
However big the fire was, with so little loss of buildings, life quickly resumed in Oakland. The fire story went from a front page-wide headline in the Tribune on Sunday the 27th and a page of dramatic pictures, to a one-column aftermath article the next day to…almost nothing, apparently.
Other news quickly took over, including coverage of the death of San Francisco banker William H. Crocker who reportedly left a million-dollar estate, and a Downtown Oakland parade for native son and tennis champion Don Budge (that year Budge won Wimbledon singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles, the U.S. Open, and a share of the U.S. Davis Cup victory.) And Oakland also commemorated National Fire Protection Week, which focused on home preparations and conventional structure fires.
A final footnote to the fire story came on Friday, October 1, less than a week after the blaze began. W.K. Driggs, the music teacher employed by the W.P.A. who had accidently started the fire, was given a suspended sentence of “a $100 fine or 20 days in jail.”
Oakland Police Judge Chris Fox imposed an actual effective penalty of 120 days of probation, noting “probation was granted because he was confident Driggs did not set the fire deliberately and that he was aware of the mental suffering Driggs had undergone.” Fox “indicated that severe penalties will attach in similar cases in the future,” the Tribune reported.
And on Saturday, October 2 , “the first autumn rain fell in the Bay Region,” just a sprinkling, actually. The short wrap-up article in the Tribune about the weather mentioned fallen power lines, and potential damage to crops from Niles to the Central Valley. There was no mention of the beginning of the end of the fire season.
(Steven Finacom is the current President of the Berkeley Historical Society where he co-curated an exhibit on the 75th anniversary of the 1923 Berkeley Fire in 1998.)
For more resources:
The author wrote about the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Firestorm here:
The website of the Hills Emergency Forum, a consortium of agencies with fire fighting and prevention interests in the Berkeley Hills, has good information on local wildfires and fire prevention. http://www.hillsemergencyforum.org/