Oakland Fire Takes Toll on Schools, Evokes Memories of Bay-Area Quake

October 30, 1991 3 min read

The devastating brush fire that swept through the hills in and around Oakland, Calif., last week took a tell on several schools, while other school buildings were left standing even as homes surrounding them lay in charred ruins, officials said.

School was disrupted for at least a day for most pupils in the Oakland and Berkeley public schools following the fire as some schools were used as evacuation centers, others were without utilities, and numerous teachers and other staff members were among those who lost their homes to the wind-fed blaze. At least one teacher was killed in the fire.

“It is a devastating scene,” said Pat Howlett, spokesman for the Oakland school district. “Every comment you have heard about it being a ‘moonscape’ is true.”

For educators and others, the fire was reminiscent of the Loma Prieta earthquake that struck the Bay area almost exactly two years ago. Teachers helped pupils cope with the stress of the latest catastrophe, especially the hundreds who were left homeless by the fire.

“We have eight grief counselors at the school today and tomorrow,” said Jean Lyford, principal of Orinda Intermediate School in the Oakland suburb of Orinda. A popular science teacher at the school was killed in the blaze, and three other teachers there lost their homes.

A memorial assembly at the school was planned for Friday.

The blaze was said to have begun on the morning of Oct. 20, a Sunday, from the embers of a small brush fire that had been extinguished about 24 hours earlier. Driven by high winds . and the availability of dry brush, the fire quickly spread through the wealthy residential areas known as the Oakland and Berkeley hills, prompting the evacuation of thousands of residents.

As of late last week, 24 people were said to have died in the fire, 18 others were missing, dozens more were injured, and a three-square-mile area, mostly in Oakland, had been charred.

Property-damage estimates ran as high as $5 billion, with some 2,500 homes and apartment units destroyed, many of them worth more than $1 million apiece because of their location overlooking Oakland and the San Francisco Bay.

School Damages

Officials and volunteers at two private schools in Oakland waged fierce battles to stave off flames that threatened their campuses. At one school, the effort was largely successful, while at the other only a handful of its buildings were spared.

The fire destroyed several new classroom buildings at the 70-yearold Bentley School, a private elementary school in Oakland, despite the efforts of its headmaster, Robert Munro, who used several garden hoses to stave off the flames.

Three of the school’s main buildings-its library, a new auditorium, and a 90-year-old mansion housing classrooms-were preserved.

Officials of the school could not be roached for comment last week, but Mr. Munro told the San Francisco Examiner that he spent two hours moving from building to building on the campus, spraying them with hoses before he had to escape the flames himself.

At the nearby College Preparatory School, a drama teacher was at the school that morning building shelves for an upcoming production, said Lucia Heldt, the admissions directer.

As the fire approached, the teacher and the school’s dean of students joined with volunteers to use garden hoses to keep its buildings wet.

“Our campus is all wooden shingle buildings surrounded by eucalyptus trees, but they managed to keep it wetted down,” Ms. Heldt said. The buildings were saved.

Public-school facilities in Oakland were spared major damage.

“As far as our schools, I can’t believe how lucky we were,” said Ms. Howlett.

But while school buildings in some of the hardest-hit fire zones remained standing, the homes surrounding them were charred. Officials said that parents who have had to relocate temporarily while their homes are rebuilt must decide whether to keep their children in the neighborhood schools, where their destroyed homes will serve as a reminder of the disaster.

While the beleaguered Oakland city government weighs the tax impact of the temporary loss of some of its highest-valued property, school district officials do not believe the fire will have a serious impact on its budget since the state is still responsible for providing equalized funding, Ms. Howlett said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Oakland Fire Takes Toll on Schools, Evokes Memories of Bay-Area Quake