September 17

This Day in History

Disaster

Sep 17, 1923:

Fire threatens U.C. Berkeley

On this day in 1923, a fire in northern California threatens the University of California at Berkeley, kills 2 people and causes $10 million in damages.

The exact cause of the devastating fire has never been determined, but it began in the dry forests northeast of Berkeley. Strong winds from the east blew cinders into the air and caused the fire to spread rapidly. The red-hot cinders sometimes jumped several houses at a time, resulting in a random pattern of destruction.

Homeowners attempted to fight the flames with garden hoses and buckets, but these amateur labors proved no match for the fire. Firefighters from Oakland and San Francisco rushed to the area, but their efforts were hampered by a lack of available water. A group of hundreds of students from the University of California—rumored to have included tennis champion Helen Wills--also pitched in, as the fire came right to the campus gates.

Nearly 1,000 houses had succumbed to the fire, including half of the fraternity and sorority houses in the area, when the wind abruptly shifted just as the flames reached campus. The National Guard was quickly called in to stop the looting that followed in the chaotic aftermath.

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