When Smoke Is In The Air

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When the days are hot and the skies are full of smoke from the wildfires that continue to plague California, I am reminded of a warm and windy Sunday morning in October, nearly 25 years ago.

The fire that began in the Oakland hills swept through neighborhoods in Oakland and Berkeley that day. It came roaring down the hillsides, and jumped over freeways. If the wind hadn’t shifted, people said, the fire would’ve burned all the way to the Bay. Over three thousand homes, including mine, were destroyed in the firestorm. Twenty-five people lost their lives.

When my family evacuated, we had to make decisions quickly. We grabbed mostly what we would refer to now as hard copies: photo albums, baby books, and my Rolodex. My husband backed up the computer onto a couple of square plastic discs. We were luckier than the people who weren’t home that day. They lost everything they’d left behind: all their important papers, all their photographs, all the special -- and the ordinary — Items they’d had in their homes.

Someone asked me recently what I would do differently if I had to do it again, evacuate with only a few minutes to decide what to take with me.

Aside from scooping up a few sentimental items, we would make sure we had our cellphones with us. The photos would be saved, the essential documents would reside in The Cloud, and my contacts list would be at my fingertips. I could text friends and loved ones to let them know we were safe. They could contact us in a variety of virtual ways, instead of calling family members on their landlines and having them make notes on those pink “While you were out” message pads.


The things that matter are not any smaller today, but the ways many of us tend to them are. The losses may still be heavy, but the things we save need not be.

Of course, I hope I never have to face that situation again. But if I do, with phone and charger in hand, I’ll be ready.

With a Perspective, I’m Risa Nye.

Risa Nye is a Bay Area native who has written a memoir about losing her home in the 1991 firestorm.