The 1923 Fire: Berkeley’s First Wildfire Disaster

November 5, 2023 – March 23, 2024

Curator: Steven Finacom

Video: Historical Footage of the 1923 Berkeley Fire

The early fall is “fire weather” season in Berkeley. Anyone who has lived in the town for a few years or more knows what this means. The weather turns warm, the typical pattern of cool breezes off San Francisco Bay slows and stalls, and hot, dry, winds blow down over the Berkeley Hills from inland.

Under these conditions, if a blaze starts in the wild lands above Berkeley or in a settled neighborhood, the wind can quickly spread it into a downwind conflagration that defies conventional firefighting efforts.

A century ago, Berkeley had this experience. This exhibit tells the story of Berkeley’s 1923 Fire that took place on September 17, 1923.

Blowing from its ignition point in Wildcat Canyon (then private water company land, not regional park), the fire swept down through the neighborhoods north of the UC campus, incinerating some 600 buildings and burning to the edges of both the UC campus and downtown Berkeley before a late afternoon shift in the winds saved the rest of the town.

Thousands lost their homes, including an estimated one quarter of all UC faculty and staff at the time, most of whom lived in Berkeley. In an era when many academics not only lived close to campus but often “worked from home,” the Fire also destroyed private libraries, research collections, and scholarly work. About ten percent of UC students also lost their homes to the Fire.

The Fire changed the built character of Berkeley, obliterating hundreds of the classic “Berkeley brown shingle” homes that had lined north Berkeley streets for decades, embodying the ideals of Berkeley’s Hillside Club and “building with nature” advocates. The lost homes were often replaced with houses in newer Period Revival styles that featured fire-resistant construction such as stucco exteriors and tile roofs.

A centerpiece of the exhibit will be an enlarged photo panorama of the fire ruins spread across the main wall of the History Center. In addition to the story of what happened on September 17, the exhibit will also discuss what Berkeley was like in 1923 before the Fire, and also how the aftermath was handled.

Berkeley had other brushes with fire disasters prior to September, 1923, and there had even been some efforts to plan for fire prevention measures. But they came too little, too late. And after September 1923, fearful of permanent damage to the favorable reputation of Berkeley as a place to learn and live, civic leaders, from UC administrators to local government officials to Berkeley realtors, sought to minimize long-term impacts and characterize the fire as an incident from which Berkeley quickly recovered.

Ultimately, however, the story of the 1923 Fire is not simply dry history and a story of the past. It’s also the story of natural conditions—today being intensified by climate change—that permanently affect Berkeley and that may well lead to similar events in the future.

Part of the exhibit will also profile what Berkeley was like in 1923, a hundred years ago. It was a year that, even without the Fire, would have figured significantly in local history. The rapidly growing town saw upheavals in local politics, the adoption of the City Manager form of government, and first steps taken towards establishing public utility districts. On the UC campus it was a year of a new president of the University, a new—and controversial—football stadium, and considerable expansion of academic facilities including several new buildings.

The exhibit is curated by Steven Finacom, whose first activity after joining the BHSM Board 25 years ago was co-curating an exhibit on the 75th anniversary of the same fire.