On the afternoon of September 17, 1923, just about everyone in Berkeley California had taken note of the uncommonly warm, dry wind blowing in from the northeast. What they didn’t know was that a small grass fire over the hill in Wildcat Canyon was growing fast, leaping from grass to brush to tree—and it was about to crest the hills of North Berkeley. When it did, near Berryman Reservoir, the fire was a half mile wide. A thick black cloud came pouring over the hill, followed by surging flames pressed low by warm, gale-force winds, known as Diablo winds. The fire raced and bore down on the Northside neighborhood. Just a few decades earlier, at the turn of the century, the area had been sparsely developed pastureland known as Daley’s Scenic Park. But, spurred in part by immigration across the bay after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, there was a surge of subdivision and construction. As the fire roared downhill, the homes literally exploded in flames. Berkeley’s small contingent of firefighters was forced to repeatedly abandon their positions as the wind-propelled fire speedily advanced. The entire city, it seemed, might be consumed. But just as the flames reached the shopping district, the wind reversed direction and the fire was blown back onto itself. With nothing left to consume, it died out. When North Berkeley residents returned, there was nothing to salvage. It was a naked landscape of charred tree trunks and freestanding chimneys surrounded by bare foundations. At final tally, more than 500 homes were destroyed. Miraculously, no one was killed, but 4,000 people were left homeless, including more than 100 University employees and faculty and over 1,000 students.
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