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More than a quarter of a century later, Oakland residents Don Margolis and David Cunningham remember well the day in 1991 when they lost their homes to the Oakland Hills Fire that killed 25 people and destroyed nearly 3,500 homes. In separate interviews, Margolis and Cunningham recalled the lessons learned in the wake of that tragic day.
Margolis, now an attorney for the University of California Office of the President, says he and his wife Anne did not initially experience panic or great anxiety, perhaps for a couple of reasons.
“First, we were fortunate not to have a harrowing escape,” he said. He and Anne were in San Francisco for brunch that day. “We had hours to watch and wait, and then depart long before flames reached our neighborhood.”
“Once we arrived at home,” Margolis says, “we saw the fire clear across the canyon, near its point of origin to the north, blowing west toward the Claremont Hotel, not toward us. So we assumed we were safe.”
That morning, Cunningham and his wife Claire were at church, and saw smoke coming from their neighborhood. They quickly returned home and discovered small fires in their neighbors’ backyard, started by embers blown across the freeway a half-mile away. They expected firefighters to arrive at any time, but Cunningham started hosing down the roof as a precautionary measure.
“I felt sort of ridiculous being up there,” he says, “but we could see the smoke and fire moving with great force across the hills near us. In fact, some transformers went up with a boom. Then I knew we were in trouble.”
Margolis recalls seeing his daughter, just shy of two years old, standing upstairs, staring out the window at the hillside where the conflagration began, repeating “Fire, fire,” the flames a subject of curiosity, not fear.
“This was when Anne decided it would be best to whisk her away from the smoke, over to my sister’s house in Montclair.” The Margolis’ five-year-old son was out of the neighborhood, at a friend’s house, for a sleep-over.
Like Cunningham, Margolis climbed onto the roof with a hose, figuring this would be extra insurance against the remote risk of conflagration.
“As I watched the water turn instantly to steam when it hit the hot tiles, I realized I was engaged in a futile effort,” Margolis says. “I went down into the house, and grabbed some photo albums and papers, nothing particularly special.” The one thing he says he wishes he had remembered to take were the videos of his kids as babies and toddlers.
Margolis says that what helped his family get through the days immediately after the fire was “the sweetness and caring of family and friends.” A connection to other fire survivors developed in the weeks after the fire, when he and Anne met with their neighbors to discuss community approaches to debris removal.
The Cunninghams became connected with other fire survivors from their street in a very special way.
“We exchanged information and talked a lot about what we had learned from our insurance reps and other sources. We saw we could help each other by little bits of information each of us had learned.”
Like the other survivors, Margolis and Cunningham had to deal with insurance companies to replace their homes.