California Burning

updated 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Shortly before noon on Sunday, Oct. 20, Betty Ann Bruno, a reporter for KTVU-TV in Oakland, was at home when she noticed the skies had turned ominously dark. She flipped on the radio. "They said it was a grass fire four miles away," she recalls, "too far to affect me." But a few minutes later she went outside and saw that wind-borne embers had ignited a nearby house on Buena Vista Avenue. Bruno grabbed a hose and was spraying her own roof, which was smoldering, when firemen ran by shouting for people to evacuate. "The fire was too fast," she says. "My house was burning down within 15 minutes of when it hit the neighborhood."

Conditions had been just about perfect for a fiery calamity in the Oakland hills. The area's oily eucalyptus and pine trees and its dense chaparral were tinder dry from a five-year drought; the thermometer had hit 89°F, a record high for the date; and a hot, dry wind with gusts up to 65 mph was blowing out of the Central Valley. At 8:51 A.M., a grass fire was reported flaring at a site where a brushfire had been put out the previous day—perhaps incompletely.

By the time it reached Bruno's home, flames were leaping 100 feet into the air. At the heart of the inferno, temperatures reached 2,000°F—equivalent to the heat of a blast furnace. The flames continued unchecked, consuming some of the city's most expensive real estate—million-dollar homes with commanding bay views. It generated a smoke plume that weather-satellite photos showed stretching 60 miles out over the Pacific. In less than 24 hours, a Bay Area still recovering from the massive earthquake just two years ago suffered another grievous trauma: at least 24 dead and 25 missing, 3,000-plus residences destroyed, property damage estimated at $5 billion—and a trove of stories of heroism, tragedy and just plain good luck.

Joe Jorgenson, 25, was in the Marlborough Terrace house he shared with his wheelchair-bound mother, Concetta, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Jorgenson and his girlfriend, Nicole Planisczka, 22, were about to go out when, through a back window, they spotted flames cresting a nearby hill. "Five minutes later it was in the backyard," says Jorgenson, a computer-company bookkeeper. It was déjà vu: In 1970, his family home had been half destroyed by a brushfire. Now, he frantically half carried, half dragged his mother into Nicole's car. As they drove away, he tried in vain to retrieve family heirlooms and jewelry. Then, dressed in jeans, tank top and a baseball cap, Jorgenson sped away on his Kawasaki motorcycle—only to find himself confronting a corridor of flames and burning embers he estimated to be two or three house-lengths long. "I just prayed, closed my eyes and gunned it," he says. "It hurt like hell. I could feel my shoulders and back on fire. There was a garden hose going on one of the lawns, so I stopped and doused myself." Finally making it to Berkeley's Alta Bates-Herrick Hospital, Jorgenson was treated for second-degree burns over 20 percent of his body.

Oakland police officer John Grubensky, at 32 a six-year veteran, was not so fortunate. While helping to evacuate the Charing Cross Road neighborhood, he had apparently piled five people into his patrol car—and then found his escape route blocked. He and the passengers got out and tried to outrun the inferno—and became six of the confirmed fatalities. Grubensky's body was so badly charred that he was identifiable only by the serial numbers on his gun and badge. Ironically, his walkie-talkie lay nearby, still squawking with police calls.

Up on nearby Grizzly Peak, fireman Dwight Langford, 33, and his crew were battling a small blaze when suddenly "the wind picked up, and the fire came up the valley and completely surrounded us," he says. "I heard some rumbling and there must have been 30 or 40 deer, raccoon and rabbits getting out of Dodge City. We were trapped, so we just wet each other down and lay down on the road to die. We held each other's hands and prayed. There was no macho s—-involved—we were definitely crying. It was a freak that the fire went right over us." Only one of Langford's companions suffered serious burns.

That night Arash Kouhi, 18, a recent graduate of Skyline High School in Oakland, and three friends made an end run around the police cordons to reach his home on Florence Avenue. "The fire was about a block away," he says. "The firemen were busy down the street, so I watered our house while my friends shoveled dirt over the fires in the backyard. I was scared, but we always had an exit. The fire was only three-quarters of the way around us, so we just fought to the end, and the fire lost." When his parents learned of what he had done, says Kouhi, "They were angry—but also happy I saved the house."

By nightfall Sunday, Oakland's Technical High School had been transformed into an emergency shelter for about 300 of the fire victims. (As many as 5,000 area residents were left homeless.) Alice and Olindo Martella had just lost the New England—style home where they had lived for the past 40 years. "Everything is gone," said Olindo, 83, a retired cabinetmaker. Ordered to leave their house in 20 minutes, Alice, 78—mother of two, grandmother of five and great-grandmother of two—had gathered her mother's Bible, some piano music, picture albums, eyeglasses, heirloom jewelry, blood-pressure pills and a few life-insurance papers. Olindo grabbed a tube of toothpaste, his thyroid medicine and some hair cream. "I just have the clothes I have on," he said, indicating his plaid shirt and old jeans. Alice, slightly embarrassed that her orange sandals didn't match her purple pantsuit, said softly, "I loved my home so much. But I've faced so many things in my life. I had a radical mastectomy in 1954. What's to be is to be. I have to have a legacy of courage for my kids."

Overnight, the winds calmed. And when the morning fog burned off, the fire's devastation became appallingly apparent. Luxuriant groves of trees were now blackened skeletons. Entire blocks of expensive homes lay in ashes, with brick chimneys standing like grave markers over the charred husks of refrigerators and other appliances. At one site a woman retrieved a perfectly preserved plaster-of-Paris cast she had made of her child's hand; when officers in a passing police car ordered her to leave for safety's sake, a friend of hers screamed at them, "This is her whole life here! At least give her a moment to find if there's anything left!" On streets littered with downed utility lines, squirrels lay singed and virtually petrified, and windowless cars, with their paint and tires scorched off, sat near vehicles that seemed, miraculously, showroom perfect. From one wreck, Tuolumne County firemen Don Miller and Dan Dunlop rescued a dazed but healthy graystriped cat. The house at 275 Alvarado Road had collapsed on itself, but a Halloween pumpkin on the front steps sat unscathed.

On Monday afternoon, Bill and Brenda Irwin returned to what remained of their home on Sheridan Road. Brenda, 46, an accountant, tearfully looked over the still-smoldering wreckage. She and Bill, 51, a lawyer, gingerly stepped over the rubble. The melted remains of a water heater and a glass bowl fused to a silver platter poked up out of the ashes. Pointing to a row of new trees in the backyard, Brenda said, "I think they might make it. There's even some green grass down there. See, some things did survive."

Clutching an untouched black teacup plucked from the ruins, Brenda started back toward the street. "Where do we go from here?" Bill mused. "I guess we take care of this week and next week, and then we take care of next year." Brenda sighed, rubbed her hand over her face and said quietly, "And yesterday we were wondering about whether I was going to weed the garden."

Robert Maynard, 54, the Oakland Tribune publisher who described the devastation as the closest "to an American version of Dresden as I've ever seen," was luckier. He paid little attention to the early brushfire reports and mainly out of curiosity had climbed onto his roof to see the smoke coming from a rural canyon about a mile off. An hour later, when flames were rushing over the crest of a nearby hill, he and his family fled.

On Monday, the newsman and his eldest son, David, 20, returned and found that while houses all around had been incinerated, theirs was intact. Maynard later learned that firefighters had arrived just after the family left, halting the flames a few feet from the wooden scaffolding set up for a remodeling job. "I told my son," Maynard says, " 'If you've never seen a miracle before, this is what it looks like.' "

That same day Charlene Greene, 49, also had reason to give thanks. Her husband, Douglas, 49, had stayed behind when she and daughter Dina, 18, fled their home on Golden Gate Avenue by car. "It was scary—you could hear other houses exploding around us," recalls Charlene of the harrowing drive. Now she learned, not only was Douglas safe, but he and three neighbors had used garden hoses to save their houses and three others. "I still have my earthquake-preparedness kit," remembers Charlene as she reflects on her family's brush with disaster. "I always thought an earthquake would do me in. Not a fire."

RON ARIAS and TONY CHIU
DIRK MATHISON, MICHAEL SMALL, DIANNA WAGGONER, LIZ McNEIL, MARGARET EMERY and IRVIN MUCHNICK in Oakland

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