Oakland Hills Firestorm 20 Years Later

This week will mark the 20th anniversary of the Oakland Hills Firestorm.

 The flames were out.

The residents were gone.

The trees of the Oakland Hills resembled blackened toothpicks.

 Richard Misrach went to this barren moonscape not as a photographer, but as an observer when a friend invited him to tour the aftermath of the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm. After witnessing the devastation, the veteran art photographer knew he had to take pictures. 

"I went and got my 8 x 10 camera, which is a large, old fashioned camera with the bellows and a hood over your head,” Misrach recalled, “and just started photographing.”

Misrach drove through the hills for a week snapping pictures. There were hardly any people left so he photographed burned trees, a melted child’s toy, a memorial to a fallen police officer.  When he finally stopped taking pictures, he cataloged his negatives and contemplated an exhibition. 

"There’s no flames, there’s no people running, there’s no drama -- it’s really a quiet look,” said Misrach reflecting on his images. “So I decided at that point I’d put it away for 20 years for posterity.”

 October 20 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Oakland Hills fire that killed 25, and destroyed more than 3,000 homes. To mark the anniversary, Misrach dug out his negatives and organized an exhibition. Twin exhibitions of his photos are running simultaneously at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California.

"I’m hoping that 20 years later, people’s wounds have healed,” said Misrach in front of the image of a swimming pool amidst a burned-out home. “I’ve talked to some people and it’s been a range of experience.”

Sally Rubin had ridden that roller-coaster of emotion since the fire destroyed her home. She said she was initially hesitant to see Misrach’s pictures. But as she walked through the Berkeley gallery examining the photos, she said she was finally ready to look back.

"It’s a historical document and it’s an important document,” said Rubin, who eventually moved back to the Oakland Hills. “It’s an important turning point in my life.”

In addition to Misrach’s photographs, the Oakland Museum of California plans to install a board where visitors can post pictures and remembrances. They’ll also be able to video tape comments, and write in a memory book. 

"We’re prepared for people to be very emotional about this,” said Drew Johnson, curator of  Oakland’s exhibit.  “This was something that happened to this community.”

While Misrach realized the exhibit’s potential to open old wounds, he also intended it to deliver a message about the danger of living risky places, like earthquake zones, and areas prone to wildfires. 

"There’s a lot of messages in here to be careful about,” said Misrach, who relocated to the Berkeley Hills. “So I think it’s valuable for that reason.”

The exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California runs from October 15, 2011 – February 12, 2012.

The Berkeley Art Museum is currently open, and runs through February 5, 2012.

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