Smoking Rubble, Police Barricades and a Lot of Anxious Residents

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

RANCHO BERNARDO, Calif., Oct. 24 -- Strange things happened on Cloudesly Drive. Houses simply disappeared. At one address, there is a swimming pool, transformed into a black lagoon. There is a metal lump, still warm to the touch, that appears to have been the dishwasher. What else? A pile of charred red roof tiles. And that's about it.

But the strange thing is the house next door. It is pristine. Untouched by fire. Roses in full bloom still hang on their stems. The lawn is lush and green. The stucco bright white. The owners locked the door and left. They will come home, while their neighbors will return to smoking rubble.

This is how it went Wednesday, as residents struggled to get past police barricades and back into their neighborhoods to find out the hand they had been dealt. With as many as 400 homes destroyed, Rancho Bernardo was one of the communities hardest hit by the Witch fire that burned across northern San Diego County.

The pattern of destruction was a crazy scattershot. Three houses were melted to the ground, next to five houses that were unscathed. On one block, almost all of the houses were gone. On other streets, all of the houses were spared -- except one.

For most of the day, police kept increasingly frustrated residents out of the most damaged sections of Rancho Bernardo. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender said, "We are doing everything we can to get everybody back into their homes as quickly and as safely as possible," but he warned that "it is not only the condition of the fire -- it is the condition of the water, the condition of the power -- that we have to take into consideration to get people safely back into their homes."

On Tuesday, San Diego City Council member Brian Maienschein posted the address of every house damaged or destroyed in his district. The list is 11 pages long. "I'm not on it, but what if they missed me?" said Deborah Jenkins, who waited with other residents of Rancho Bernardo and the other developments in nearby Poway at the local Albertsons supermarket.

Police told residents that they feared open gas lines and the possibility that fires could suddenly return. In fact, the homes themselves were still smoldering, and here and there small brush fires could be seen stubbornly consuming backyard plants.

But reporters and emergency workers got in -- and it was like touring a ghost town or a movie set. No one stirred on the streets. It was quiet enough to hear birds singing. The air smelled like burned plastic. Inside the destroyed homes, there would be a seared pot or pan, but not much else. Satellite dishes, however, were spared.

A new Toyota was parked at the curb of a house reduced to ashes. The car was dusted with cinders but otherwise unharmed. In another driveway, a charred husk of a minivan, but the home was spared.

Because it is Halloween season, plastic skeletons and tombstones dotted the front yards of houses burned to the ground. One home had a FOR SALE BY OWNER sign in the yard, but there was no longer a house to sell. There was a sense that a great heat had passed through. Garden hoses were melted where they were dropped by fleeing homeowners. Blackened tricycles crumbled with a touch. Plastic patio furniture, at the edges of the fire, melted into spaghetti.

Michelle Lee, who helped her mother evacuate from Rancho Bernardo, said, "I think a lot of homes on her street caught on fire." She was anxious to see what had happened to the house, but she thought maybe she should go first, when they let residents back in. "I don't know. What if there's really nothing left? I don't want my mom to see it."

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