Over the last few days we’ve been breathing smoke from the Napa and Sonoma County fires. A co-worker picked up masks from the campus health service. I wore mine on the walk home Thursday, but still coughed for minutes afterwards.

The experience brought back memories of a much closer experience with California wildfires.

On Sunday morning, October 20, 1991, we breakfasted with friends at Smokey Joe’s, one of Berkeley’s last authentic hippie hangouts. We had just bought our home in North Berkeley and bored our friends silly talking about how we’d spent the last few days cleaning it and were now moving in some of our stuff. After the meal we showed them the new place. They politely looked through all the rooms and said nice things before insisting they let us get back to our tasks. We walked them to their car. “Strange weather, eh?” one of them remarked. The breeze, instead of coming from the ocean, blew hot and dry and fast from the Central Valley — a diablo wind.

Once our friends escaped us, we drove to our El Cerrito apartment to pick up more stuff. As we rounded a corner I happened to look at the sky. My first thought was that I’d seen a tornado. But that was impossible — we don’t get tornadoes in California. So we drove up Albany Hill to get a better look.

And that was when we beheld the Oakland Hills fire.

For perspective, that white tower on the left is the 307-foot Campanile at the center of the UC Berkeley campus.

For a while it looked as if the conflagration might not stop until it hit the bay, so we moved our few valuables at the new place back to El Cerrito. Then I called a friend who lived in the hills above Montclair, hoping he wouldn’t answer since that would mean he’d evacuated. But he picked up the phone. “What are you still doing there?” I shrieked. “Watering the roof,” he rasped. “You rent that place! Don’t be an idiot! Pack your stuff and get out of there!” I offered him a place to stay, since we had both the apartment and the house. He did eventually leave, but not because of anything I said. The fire stopped four blocks from his home.

Two of The Fabulous Wife’s acquaintances weren’t so lucky. A co-worker had time to grab her dog, cat, daughter, and $20,000 violin before racing downhill. She lost everything else. A baking school classmate was in downtown San Francisco when the fire broke out. She noticed ashes wafting from the sky. “Hey, here’s a page from a computer manual,” she said, and joked “Maybe it’s my computer manual.” No joke.

We discussed what we’d do if the fire blew down the hill toward us, but never needed to act on our plan. We were lucky.

We drove into the hills a day or two later and were shocked by the devastation. We had never seen anything like it. And so to our neighbors up north who weren’t as lucky this year as we were in October 1991, you have all our thoughts and condolences.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.