New Berkeley Historical Society exhibit explores 1923 wildfire

On Sunday, Nov. 5, the Berkeley Historical Society and Museum will be holding a reception for the opening of their new exhibit, The 1923 Fire: Berkeley’s First Wildfire Disaster.


On Sunday, Nov. 5, the Berkeley Historical Society and Museum will be holding a reception for the opening of their new exhibit, The 1923 Fire: Berkeley’s First Wildfire Disaster. The exhibit will be open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 1 to 4 pm with free admission. 

In 1923, a fire that started in Tilden Regional Park burned down over 600 buildings from the north of the University of California (UC) Berkeley campus to the edges of the UC Berkeley campus and downtown Berkeley. According to John Underhill, a 1949 Berkeley High School graduate whose family lost their house to the fire, the fire originated from Tilden Park due to an electric wire that had been knocked down. The fire spread quickly due to the dry grass and strong north wind which directed the fire towards the City of Berkeley. Later, a change in the wind’s course saved part of the city.

At the exhibit, visitors can expect to see salvaged artifacts from the burned down buildings. These artifacts include a partially burned book, a partially melted fireplace and iron, a scarred bowl, passes issued by the California National Guard, and melted silverware. According to Underhill, the passes were issued to his grandmother and mother after the fire occurred. The passes allowed them to visit the burned down areas. The helmets of the firefighters that attempted to extinguish the fire will be on display as well. 

Visitors can also expect to see panoramas and pictures of the fire itself and the people carrying out their belongings in an attempt to save them from burning. There will also be copies of newspaper articles, maps, other records about the fire, and summary descriptions about the different aspects of the fire.

Steven Finacom is the curator of the exhibit and co-curated an exhibit for the 75th anniversary of the 1923 fire at the Berkeley Historical Society and Museum 25 years ago. He stated that they are bringing the exhibit back as a way to recognize its 100th anniversary. 

“25 years ago there were still some people alive in Berkeley who had personal recollections of the fire or were alive then, and many other people remembered it from stories their parents told them,” said Finacom. “Today, there are few, if any, people who were living in Berkeley in 1923. So telling the story again and renewing it is important when it’s no longer part of ‘living memory.’”

Finacom added that the exhibit is relevant to the conditions of Berkeley today because it is in a similar situation that it was in 1923. Due to climate change, the likelihood and intensity of wildfires have severely increased and are prone to spreading quickly due to the dry lands. According to Fincom, Berkeley may be in even worse conditions than before because of the weather patterns and increase in houses in the Berkeley Hills. 

“In 1923, houses didn’t climb the Berkeley Hills all the way to the ridgeline like they do today,” said Fincom. “There was a lot of grassland then. If a fire occurred today, burning exactly the same area as was burned in 1923, hundreds more homes would be destroyed than in 1923.”

John Aronovici, the museum’s manager, agreed, saying that people have not learned their lessons.

 “In other words, they still are planning things and or some things you can’t change. For example, Berkeley has a lot of very narrow streets up in the hills, and the fire trucks can’t get through people,” he said. 

Aronovici expressed that through this exhibit, he hopes that people will learn how to protect their homes. He believes that people should be prepared for fires just like how people are prepared for earthquakes. 

Finacom said that he hopes for people to acknowledge the fact that there was a big wildfire a century ago in Berkeley as it is not well-known among current residents of the city. He also hopes that people pay attention to how the Berkeley community responded to the wildfire. After the 1923 wildfire had occurred, there was much talk about how safety could be improved for the future, but not much action was taken. Therefore, he hopes that people will learn from the past and find better ways to develop a safer community. 

“Berkeley seems like a very tranquil place, even a special place in terms of weather, setting, views, lifestyle … but part of the cost of having that special place is that we’re also subject to two types of recurring natural disasters, earthquakes, and wildfires,” said Finacom.