Oakland Firestorm Mural
The Oakland Firestorm of Oct. 20, 1991, was America’s worst urban conflagration since the Great Chicago Fire. Twenty-five people were killed, nearly 3,000 homes destroyed and more than 20,000 people evacuated.

The magnitude of the Oakland Firestorm is not popularly recognized, not even in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was no typical California wildfire. The more dense foliage of Northern California made this fire more devastating than the annual fires seen in Southern California, a ferocity that cameras were unable to fully capture. Coming a year after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, national news coverage of the firestorm tended to harken back to the previous event — a chance to show gripping earthquake footage rather than express the extent of the fire’s devastation.

Hollywood slapped together an awful made-for-TV movie that was quickly forgotten. Then the firestorm’s 10-year anniversary was overshadowed by 9/11. Today, local news reports marking the anniversary are more likely to promote fire prevention measures than attempt to convey the force and speed with which the firestorm overtook residents of the Oakland and Berkeley hills.

The Oakland Firestorm Mural is unchallenged as a visual representation of the event and its aftermath, going where cameras cannot — a multiplicity of survivor memories.

The Firestorm Community Mural Project was conceived by Brooke Levin, who was then assistant to Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris and is now the city’s assistant director of facilities. The project was coordinated by Gail Smithwalter, who also contributed photos to the book, "Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art" (1994). The mural was sponsored by the Office of the Oakland Mayor and the Cultural Arts Division, City of Oakland, the Oakland Community Fund, Bay Area Rapid Transit, Pro Arts, and community volunteers. It was dedicated in October 1994.

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