Peter Gray Scott, an architect, built the house at the top of Alvarado Street for his mother, Frances Gray Scott, in 1968.  When her rheumatoid arthritis grew so severe she could no longer live alone, he bought the house in 1986 and moved his young family in with her.

Scott was out of town with his wife and 6-year-old daughter on the morning of October 20, 1991.  His 13-year-old daughter was at a sleepover.

That morning, the Oakland Fire Department  was mopping up a grass fire they had put out the day before.  A hot, dry Diablo wind picked up embers that hadn’t been completely extinguished. “Within 3 minutes, it had caught the first house.  It was already out of control,” said Scott.

Only Frances was home on Alvarado Street.  A caretaker came for the day shift, prepared breakfast for her, and left to go to church.  By the time the caretaker returned, fire was licking across the dry hills and the police had set up barricades at the bottom of the street.   She couldn’t get through.

What followed were hours of frantic attempts to find Frances.  Scott’s older daughter called 911 to beg for rescuers to go to the house. Police told a family friend who rushed to the barricades that Frances had probably been evacuated to Alta Bates Hospital.

After fruitlessly searching area hospitals, Scott went on television with a photograph of his mother and a plea for information.

Scott couldn’t sleep Sunday night until he knew what had happened to his house. “We parked the car down near the Cal Campus and I walked through the neighborhoods,”  he recalled.  He was stopped by the police, who were patrolling for looters.  He set out again, more carefully, and was eventually able to walk across the hill in the dark. “As I was walking up the trail,” Scott said,  “there were all these crashing sounds of animals running through the forest in the dark.  It was very very weird.”

Where his neighbors’ houses had stood, he saw only little bonfires.  He didn’t see a bonfire where his house had been, which gave him hope.

Hope ended the next morning, when a friend loaned him binoculars to look across the canyon. “There was no doubt:  where our house had been was a gray patch on the ground.  The bay tree that had been in our front yard looked like a black hand sticking out of the ground.”

Two days later, with still no sign of his mother, Scott and his family tried to return to the site of their home to sift through the ashes for clues.  Refused access at barricades in both Berkeley and Oakland, they sat on a bus bench, frustrated.

What happened next is the stuff of spy novels:  An unmarked car drove up and the driver growled, “Get in.”  He drove them onto the closed freeway in the wrong direction.  When Scott asked, “You can do this?” the man said, “I can do anything.”  He dropped them on Alvarado Street and said, “Don’t tell anyone how you got up here,” before speeding away.

Sifting through the remains of the house, Scott’s older daughter found her grandmother’s remains. “It was traumatic,” he recalled.

While they were at the site, a Berkeley police officer approached them with a story to tell.  The officer had gone up to the house, seen Frances’ empty bed through the window, and assumed she had been rescued.  He went down the hill and was told that Frances had been on the phone from the house moments before.  The officer raced back but it was too late – the house was on fire.  Scott remembers the man almost in tears: “It really bothered him and he needed to talk to us just to have some closure for himself.”

“My view is that the fire was completely preventable,” said Scott.

A grand jury investigation after a 1970 fire that had come to within a block of his house, had three recommendations:
•    Convert hydrant hook ups to a standard size so mutual aide could use them;
•    Improve radio communications; and
•    Underground power lines for the pumps at reservoirs in the hills.
“After 21 years, the fire department hadn’t done any one of those things,” said Scott.  “We were really angry.”

Scott wanted to make a difference after the fire.  He instigated a new grand jury.  He joined committees and citizen advisory groups.  He was the first person to get a permit to the rebuild his house.  He drew up plans for 11 of his neighbors to rebuild their houses.

Some losses can’t be rebuilt.  Scott said his older daughter, “when she was 31, committed suicide, because of post traumatic stress.”  He noted that, “within a two block area of us on the hill, four people who were teenagers when the fire came have committed suicide.”

Almost 22 years later, the legacy of the fire is persistent. “I had two books in progress, I had done all the research.  All that was gone – just blown away.”  Scott lists irreplaceable items consumed by the fire:  “all my artwork, my architectural drawings, my grandmother’s paintings, my father’s photographs.”    He had just spent $130,000 remodeling to make the house more comfortable for his mother – money that was simply lost.  “It’s changed our lives,” Scott said.  “Everything we refer to is, ‘that was before the fire’, ‘that was after the fire.’  It was a gateway.”

One Response

  1. Mark Gonsalves

    The urge to supplement my previous reply has overwhelmed me and if it seems too graphic, then I apologize but I can only imagine the complete and absolute terror that your mother must have endured while watching the house that she was in, burn down around her. It’s heartfelt for me! Then, the results of what your daughter experienced which eventually led to her suicide is just altogether, sadly terrible. It really is! Especially when it seems that it all could have been prevented. Okay, Im done. Sorry!


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