Former ABC7 photographer recalls destructive Oakland Hills fire on 25th anniversary

Wayne Freedman Image
ByWayne Freedman KGO logo
Thursday, October 20, 2016
Oakland Hills fire remembered on 25th anniversary
Here's a unique perspective on the Oakland Hills firefight from someone who saw the catastrophe up close and professionally.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Twenty-five years ago on Wednesday, a fire sparked in the Oakland Hills that would become the most destructive fire in state history, burning down nearly 3,000 homes. It is also one of the deadliest. Here's a unique perspective on the firefight from someone who saw the catastrophe up close and professionally.

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It's worth noting that while we call this the anniversary of the fire that caused the tragedy, the fire storm happened one year ago on Thursday. The Oakland Hills fire began after a smaller one rekindled the next day.

A quiet stroll through the Oakland Hills on a beautiful afternoon; and for John Griffin, it's also an anniversary.

"I look outside and the whole hillside, the Oakland Hills, are just covered with black smoke," he said.

He's one person you've never before heard of when we talk about the Oakland firestorm. But he's the now retired ABC7 News photographer who took compelling and now historic pictures.

"It was like something out of a sci-fi movie," he said.

For those who lived through it, including Griffin, the sights and sounds are seared into memory -- the futility of a garden hose, the fury of the wind, and finally the realization that even with all of our technology, there was nothing we could do.

"Every house I came in contact with was on fire," he said. "Every house was either burning or about to burn. The fire was coming in all directions."

In the first hour, 790 homes burned. By the next morning, we had a better sense of it all -- 25 killed, 150 injured, 1,520 acres burned, 2,843 homes gone.

Twenty-five years later, the images shot by Griffin and others evoke memories.

"It will always be there," he said. "A firestorm that will be in my memory bank forever."