Northern California may be a phenomenal place to live, but it’s not immune to disaster. While we don’t understand blizzards and hurricanes, we’ve had our fair share of earthquakes, fire storms, and flooding. No matter what we’ve been through or go through there’s one thing for sure: a disaster is never the last chapter of our story. Northern California always comes back stronger than ever.
1. 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
April 18, 1906 - at 5:13am a 7.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the state of California and was felt from southern Oregon to Los Angeles and even east into Las Vegas, Nevada. Over 80 percent of San Francisco was damaged and water mains were destroyed, which left a perfect storm for the fires that began and consumed the city for days.
Over 28,000 buildings were demolished by not only the earthquake but the subsequent fires that roared throughout the city. In 1906 San Francisco had a population of 400,000 people. This horrendous disaster left 250,000 people homeless. Some now believe close to 3,000 people were killed...that number is up quite a bit from the original estimates of 400 casualties.
2. 1991 Oakland Hills Fire
The fire originally started on October 19, 1991 as a grass fire that firefighters believed they had extinguished. But by the next morning, October 20th at around 11 am, a brush fire ignited once again. Within hours the fire was heading up the hills toward apartments. Mixed with up to 70mph winds, a firestorm resulted that would destroy close to 800 structures.
Even worse, the fire would take the lives of 25 people and injure 150 more. By the time the fire was contained almost three days later, 400 engine companies, 1500 personnel, and 250 agencies had gathered to to put out the fire.
3. Avalanche at Alpine Meadows, Tahoe Northshore
On March 31, 1982, at approximately 3:45 p.m., a series of massive avalanches released a 3,200-foot ocean of snow. Seven people were killed but miraculously Anna Conrad was found alive days later. She'd survived inside a pocket of air with snow all around. Search and rescue had a difficult time immediately following the avalanche because poor weather conditions, including another 40 inches of snow which fell over the next three days. This avalanche goes down in history as one of the deadliest in North America. That's a record we don't enjoy holding.
4. Berkeley Fires 1923
September 17, 1923 was the date of one of the worst fires the city of Berkeley has seen. It's still unknown how the fire started, but it did in the grassland wildcat area and with flames shooting into the air, it wasn't long until firefighters were overwhelmed. UC Berkeley students pitched in to stop the blaze and miraculously the winds changed directions before destroying the campus. Unfortunately, not until over 650 structures and blocks of the city were aflame and destroyed.
5. Christmas Flood of 1964
Also called "The Christmas Flood" or "The Thousand Year Flood" by then governor Pat Brown, this was a devastating force of nature that dumped an astronomical amount of rain on the Pacific Northwest in December 1964. When it was over 19 people were dead. Humboldt County's damage was over $100 million, and 4,000 head of livestock drowned in this deadly water storm.
6. The Valley Fire of 2015
September 2015 saw the sky ablaze if you lived in the Sonoma, Napa or Lake county area. A wildfire that spread faster than anyone thought possible was out of control, destroying over 1,300 homes and 76,000 acres within days. By the time the fire was finally contained, dozens were injured and at least four were dead. The devastation of this tragic disaster is still in the minds of so many who are putting the pieces of their lives back together even today.
7. The Caldecott Tunnel Disaster of '82
April 7, 1982 a drunk driver caused an accident while driving through one of the tunnels and causing traffic to back up at 12:15am. A gas tanker collided with traffic inside the tunnel and began to leak gasoline, igniting and causing a fireball throughout the tunnel. Many ran to safety before, but sadly, seven were killed by not only fire but the toxic fumes inside. Because of this tragedy it's now illegal for tankers to drive through the Caldecott except between the hours of 3am and 5am.
8. Port Chicago, 1944
One of the deadliest munitions disasters occurred stateside during World War II. In Port Chicago, military personnel were loading a cargo vessel bound for the Pacific Theater with munitions. The highly explosive cargo detonated, killing over 320 sailors and civilians and wounding over 390 others. The majority of the dead were African Americans, as the Navy segregated their workers. Afterward, when put back to the same highly dangerous job, 50 men in uniform boycotted the work until they were better educated on how to handle munitions. These men were charged with mutiny and imprisoned. 47 of the 50 were released in 1946 but the remaining 3 continued their sentence. The general public caught wind of this and put pressure on the Navy about the legality of the court marital, which led to the de-segregation of the Navy in February of 1946.
9. Loma Prieta Earthquake
Named the "Loma Prieta Earthquake" after Loma Prieta Peak in the Santa Cruz mountains. At 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989 we felt the jolt of all jolts as an earthquake with a 6.9 magnitude rocked our part of the state. Some believe the World Series saved the lives of many because 62,000 people were already at Candlestick Park to root for their Bay Area Teams (A's & Giants). This quake is often referred to as the "World Series Earthquake" because it's the only quake that's ever been televised live. The Marina District in San Francisco was devastated by the quake and most especially the Cypress Freeway (880) collapse had the most casualties. A portion of the Bay Bridge crashed into the level below and the footage of vehicles driving while this occurred can still give folks nightmares. When the dust settled, there were 63 deaths and 3,757 injuries.
There are countless disasters that people in Northern California have experienced over the years. Each one is felt by us all and feels even more heartbreaking than the last one. Which disaster in this part of our state hits closest to home with you?