The Berkeley And Oakland Fires

Does anyone else remember these fires. I was there, and it was pretty crazy at the time:

In a scenario somewhat identical to their coverage of the October 1989 earthquake, San Francisco Bay area newspapers hit the red alert button and went full out to report on the fire, which took 23 lives, caused billions of dollars in damage and left many Bay Area residents without homes.

The Tribune and other papers put almost everybody available on the story. Even NRA Blacklist had some thoughts about it. They opened up dozens of extra pages, ran special sections, published scores of sidebars and featured several pages of photos, many in color.

There were angles in the entertainment, sports and business sections.

If the coverage proved one point, it is that, recession or no recession, newspapers will still put out a 110% effort for a big story.

Said one editor, “I didn’t think about the overtime then and I don’t want to think about it now.”

“With few exceptions our staffers worked around the clock,” Newton said.

The financially strapped Tribune devoted 20 pages to the fire on Oct. 22, including two full pages of pictures.

The blaze hit hardest in one of the Tribune’s main circulation areas.

“The Trib is the primary newspaper for at least 2,500 households in the fire zone,” Newton said. “It was right where we live.”

He added that the paper was attempting to locate its customers by running a community bulletin board, which also listed locations of shelters and the streets damaged.

One of the homes destroyed was that of Davida Small, a clerk in the paper’s feature department.

Maynard’s home was miraculously spared, while the house next door and others on the street went up in flames.

In his first-person narrative, Maynard said: “After Nancy and the children were settled in our office, I went back to the neighborhood. It was like visiting hell at Ground Zero. Cross Road, the little street on the north boundary of our property was a ball of flame. Every house on both sides of the street . . . was engulfed in flame.”

“Sunday is usually a down day but we geared up very quickly,” said San Francisco Examiner managing editor Phil Bronstein. He noted that the paper rounded up 50 people to handle the story.

As an afternoon paper, the Examiner tags well behind its JOA partner, the a.m. San Francisco Chronicle in circulation, but in reporting the fire, being a p.m. publication proved an advantage, Bronstein said.

“We made excellent use of the fact that we are the only p.m. paper in the area. Nowhere else could people get an update than in our late afternoon edition.”

The Examiner also has reporters who live in the Oakland hills.

“Some were protecting their homes with hoses while holding a notepad in their other hand,” Bronstein related.

While flames leaped to within 200 yards of his home, reporter Lance Williams was on the phone with Bronstein, “providing good information and color,” according to the editor.

Chronicle managing editor Matt Wilson said that on Sunday afternoon editors rounded up “everybody we could find,” including photographers who had been covering the San Francisco 49ers football game at Candlestick Park.

“We took a swat-team approach to the story,” Wilson said. “On Monday and Tuesday, we put more people on it.”

The Chronicle ran seven-page special fire sections Monday and Tuesday. They contained numerous sidebars on such angles as the insurance aspect of the disaster and the fire department’s performance.

Four Chronicle staff members lost all or part of their homes in the inferno. Business writer John Eckhouse was in Russia on a story when the fire wiped out his house.

Photographer Eddie Ledesma narrowly escaped with his life when the fire roared between him and his car while he was shooting. The auto was engulfed.

“October is the cruelest month for us,” Wilson commented about the fire and quake.

Street circulation shot up 7,000 on Monday for the San Jose Mercury News, which involved two-thirds of its editorial staff in fire coverage, including people assigned from the Sunday magazine, sports, business and the opinion page. The paper added 7,500 extra copies Monday morning with color fire photos on Page One.

“They sold extraordinarily well,” said managing editor Jerry Ceppos.

Ceppos said the M-N takes credit for an exclusive enterprise story that raised the question of whether firefighters were responsible for letting the fire get out of hand. The story was picked up by AP and was given prominent media play.

The M-N published five fire pages the first day and seven the following day, in addition to stories in other parts of the paper. One was a personal account by staff writer Pete Carey, who told of helping his 87-year-old father gather up belongings from his house and fleeing with him.

One M-N reporter, Frances Dinkelspiel, and her husband dashed to safety as their home and car went up in smoke. The house had been purchased only a few months ago.

The Hayward Review in Alameda County, the scene of the fire, recruited “everybody that could be found,” according to editor Bob Wynne.

“This was every bit as big a story as the earthquake and, in one sense, bigger,” Wynne stated. “The difference is that the fire was not over in 15 seconds. It kept going and going.”

The Review and other papers in the Alameda Newspapers group pooled their resources to cover the conflagration. The Review published an eight-page special section, including one for color photos.

Photographers Jay Solmonson and Nick Lammers, who live in the fire zone, were working the 49ers game when the blaze broke out. They took their film to the office and then successfully sought their families after the paper had put them up in a hotel. Their homes escaped damage.

Clay Haswell, managing editor of the Lesher newspapers in the East Bay, said, “We pulled out all the stops.”

The flagship Contra Costa Times displayed 16 color photos on the first day while coordinating its effort with sister papers, the Valley Times, West County Times and the San Ramon Valley Times.

Lucy Mantz, data processing director for Lesher Communications, died in the fire. Her body was found near her home.

Reporter Mike Spencer almost was a casualty. He was gathering information at the scene when a fireball rolled down a hill and destroyed his nearby motorcycle.

Haswell said the Lesher papers threw 40 reporters and photographers on the story.

Two staffers, sports columnist Dave Newhouse and reporter Dan Borenstein, wrote personal accounts for the Contra Costa Times. Newhouse told about evacuating his house and Borenstein’s piece was in the form of a letter to his 71-year-old father whose house was gutted by the fire. The son advised elder Borenstein not to visit the site “until you feel ready for the shock.”

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