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Residents return to random destruction

Thu., Oct. 25, 2007, midnight

RANCHO BERNARDO, Calif. – 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 Creek fire that burned 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.

On Tuesday, Brian Maienschein, San Diego City Council member, 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 an 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.

But reporters and emergency workers got in – and it was like touring a ghost town.

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

Because the Halloween season approaches, there were plastic skeletons and tombstones in the front yards of houses burned to the ground. One home had a FOR SALE BY OWNER sign in the yard, but no longer had a house to sell.


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