Then dry winds whipped flames into a wide valley, destroying a second wave of homes in fires that have struck the San Diego region this week. As evacuation orders were gradually lifted Friday, residents returned home again, this time to rolling hills of charred eucalyptus, pine and oak trees.
"It didn't look like it would even come close," said Byram Frost, 33, recalling how he prepared to leave his wife and 2- and 3-year-old children to work at his family-owned lumber yard Thursday.
"We thought for sure it was gone," said Lauren Frost, 31, whose family left their home for the second time in two days Thursday and watched on television as flames burned across the street from their ranch-style house.
The Frost's house survived, but two were reduced to rubble on Mount Whitney Street in Escondido, about 30 miles north of San Diego. Nine fires in the region have destroyed at least eight houses, an 18-unit condominium complex and two businesses since Tuesday a figure that seems likely to rise after Thursday's flare-up.
The most destructive fires started in Carlsbad a densely populated coastal suburb of 110,000 people where a badly burned body was found Thursday in a transient camp and San Marcos, a neighboring suburb of 85,000 people where strip malls and large housing tracts mix with older homes whose residents cherish their large lots and country living.
Homeowners watched warily as flames burned on a San Marcos hilltop Wednesday night toward Escondido, but the next morning, many believed the danger had passed. Pam Searles, 57, felt comfortable enough to run errands, leaving her cats in the garage.
"We saved your house," a firefighter told Searles after she avoided roadblocks and returned home on Mount Whitney Street. Trees on her lawn had burned and she sprayed hot spots with a hose.
"I just thought it was a goner," she remembered thinking as she returned home.
Many of the tens of thousands who evacuated had fled before during regional firestorms in 2003 and 2007 that destroyed thousands of homes.
Nelly Dowlatshi, who lost her home in the 2007 fires, felt the fear return as she scrambled for medicine, important documents and family photos and crammed them into a suitcase Wednesday night at her small senior community in Escondido.
"I didn't know what to do. I just grabbed everything that I could. The most (important) thing for me was the pictures. I grabbed everything, throwing it in a suitcase," Dowlatshi, 75, said Friday at an evacuation center.
Al Said of Escondido refused to evacuate and helped firefighters save his home with a garden hose. Two of his neighbors lost theirs.
"That house burned and the house next to it burned," he said. "By the grace of God and the hard work of these firefighters, they came in and they saved my house right here. It was pretty touch and go. Just an awesome sight when you see that fire come through. It's just terrifying. I'm standing today so I'm happy for that, but yet I look at my neighbor's property and what do you say? Just devastating."
Associated Press videographers Haven Daley and Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.