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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some of those losses are in a northern San Diego suburb called Rancho Bernardo. On Monday, people evacuated before dawn as flames headed their way. Yesterday, authorities let them back in just as the president dropped in to see the damage himself.

And as those homeowners got a glimpse of what the fires had left behind, NPR's Ted Robbins was there.

TED ROBBINS: Jacqueline Johnston had no idea what she'd find when she walked into her home.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Ms. JACQUELINE JOHNSTON (Resident, Rancho Bernardo, San Diego County, California): I used to make everybody take off their shoes because I have white carpet that...

ROBBINS: The carpet's soiled from ash. Other than that…

Ms. JOHNSTON: I have one broken bedroom window and that's it. So I am so blessed.

ROBBINS: She's lucky too. Fire destroyed 38 out of 52 homes on this cul-de-sac alone. Now that her home is safe, Jacqueline Johnston says she's going to work to help her neighbors. She sells real estate.

Ms. JOHNSTON: And I'm an agent with Prudential so I will help everybody find rental property and move in.

Ms. LEANNE TENNANT (Resident, Rancho Bernardo, San Diego County, California): We don't know where we're going to live after this, because there'll be a lot of us looking for a place to live.

ROBBINS: Leanne Tennant and her 15-year-old daughter, Allie, were renting their home a few miles away. They had no renter's insurance when it burned completely. All they have left are some dishes and the shell of Leann Tenant's old sports car.

Ms. TENANT: It's my M.G. I bought when I graduated from high school. And then, I was going to restore it again.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) all this time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TENNANT: I think it's (unintelligible) that now.

ROBBINS: Leanne Tennant says she's still numb and confused. The grief hasn't set in yet. The confusion is understandable. Look around this neighborhood and you see the absolutely random nature of the fire. A destroyed home here then three houses untouched, or something in between.

Marilynn Askins and her family came home to find their front yard completely blackened.

Ms. MARILYNN ASKINS (Resident, Rancho Bernardo, San Diego County, California): It's just incredible. I pulled up and I just went, oh my god. You know, there's no way this house could have survived this. And it's - there's no, hardly any damage at all in the interior. So we're very grateful.

ROBBINS: The Askins stood on the sidewalk talking with their neighbor Tony Cardell. They all marveled at his luck. Cordell lost two cars, but firefighters saved his house.

Mr. TONY CARDELL (Resident, Rancho Bernardo, San Diego County, California): Looks like my jeep burned to the ground. But obviously the firemen put it out before it caught the garage on fire.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. JIM NOYCE (Resident, Rancho Bernardo, San Diego County, California): Come on in, the door is open.

ROBBINS: There is no door in Jim Noyce's house. There is no house. Noyce, his wife, Paris, and their 15-year-old son, Gunnar, are just now seeing what's still here - or more accurately, what's not.

Mr. NOYCE: You know, but it's - that the memory is like those hundred-year-old Bibles that I collected. They weren't protected. Those are gone. You know, all my mom's stuff, all the photos of son, we don't have any photos of him at all as a child now. All his handprints in porcelain, all his baby teeth, you know it's all gone. I mean, literally nothing left at all.

ROBBINS: Their son is still wearing his pajamas. He was sleeping while his dad was getting ready for work before dawn Monday. The wind had been howling all night when a neighbor knocked on the door.

Mr. NOYCE: So I was going out the door to work. I mean, the winds are probably doing 70 and the flames are about a hundred feet in the air, and came out, and everyone was screaming and that really just, I mean, it put - it freezes you. And the fire wasn't playing fair. It was going sideways. It was coming over the hill like a wave. You know, it was like the sun touching the earth, that's what it was like. It was a nightmare.

ROBBINS: Jim Noyce says he'd been crying a lot. This is his family's first house.

Mr. NOYCE: We just bought the home on August 28th. We just bought it. And so I made my first payment October 1st, and we moved into our dream home, and it was beautiful. It was beautiful.

ROBBINS: There's a lesson here, says Jim Noyce. And somehow from a man in shock, it doesn't sound trite.

Mr. NOYCE: Never in the world did I think something like this would happen - never. Sunday, we're making dinner. Everything is fine. We were watching the Malibu fires on TV and feeling for them. And the next very day, you know, you're left homeless with nothing. That quick, it can change for you. That's a lesson for everyone.

ROBBINS: Ted Robbins, NPR News, San Diego.

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