Ron Galloway, 63, stared at the smoldering remains of a guest house at the historic Singer mansion on Kregmont Drive, where he has lived for four years.
Spanish-style arches were all that remained standing in front of piles of broken roof tiles and the smoking rubble of the property. The skeleton of his burned out 1978 Toyota MR2, tire rims melted on the ground, rested in the courtyard nearby as firefighters continued mopping up the area.
"I lost everything, how am I going to survive?" he said.
The historic mansion was built in 1924 by the heirs of the Singer family, of the Singer sewing machine company.
Galloway said that when he awoke Thursday at 6 a.m. as usual he noticed an orange glow coming from the hillside across from the estate. He quickly ran inside to wake his roommates, then rushed back out to try to push his car, which had no battery, away from the building.
Rudy Rosas, 47, who has lived in the guest house for two years, grabbed his Social Security card and birth certificate along with two pairs of pants and two shirts and rode to the bottom of the hill on his bicycle. As he watched the fire spread across the hill, he thought of all the possessions he had left behind.
"You never give these things a thought," he said.
Flames were already licking the building and firefighters were coming toward it with hoses when Scott Wilhite, 52, who lived there seven months, was rushed out with his briefcase and laptop.
The three roommates stood at the bottom of the hill watching the flames. Palm trees caught fire as embers sprayed down into the neighborhood.
When a plume of thick black smoke rose in the air, Galloway said he knew the building was gone.
"I hope they catch the people that started the fire," he said, standing in a blue sleeveless shirt and sandals. All he had time to grab was his cellphone.
The fire spread quickly from the hillside straight down to the property, the men said, leaving them with little time to collect their belongings.
Clusters of religious figurines remained untouched on the blackened property, and a white cross, surrounded by burned brush, remained intact.
The estate was purchased in 2006 to be used as a Catholic retreat called Mary Immaculate Concepcion Mission, said Ray Parayno, 64, who manages the property. The house was designed after the San Miguel Mission in San Luis Obispo, and is owned by his son, Jay.
Parayno said he called firefighters early Thursday. They arrived in about 15 minutes and told the residents to grab what they could and leave.
"I feel bad for all the tenants," he said, adding that at least 11 people will be displaced.