As their neighborhoods went up in flames, panicked residents of Berkeley and Oakland descended from the hills. Their eyes gazed upward in shocked disbelief as one house after another yielded to the fire.
Many wore bandannas, washcloths or surgical masks over their mouths as protection against the thick black soot that filled the air for miles around.
As the blaze advanced, police officers with megaphones yelled out evacuation orders and tried to clear the streets immediately threatened by fire. Many people frantically loaded their cars with personal possessions and prepared to leave, not knowing if their homes would still be standing the next morning.
Others stayed as long as they could.
On Ashby Street in Berkeley, Louis deGroot was hosing down the home where he and his wife, Barbara, had lived for 14 years. "It's really grim," said Barbara deGroot as sirens screamed nearby. "It makes me feel like there's a big empty spot inside me, like something's been wrenched away."
At Oakland Technical High School, the American Red Cross evacuation center, dazed people milled about in confusion and waited to use the facility's only pay telephone to try to contact loved ones.
Among them was Lani Fantz, who had moved to Oakland's Broadway Terrace area from San Francisco on Saturday. Now she had no way of knowing whether she still had a house.
"I thought it was getting too dangerous in the city," Fantz said, fully aware of the irony. The fire had come so close that she could smell it. "I have a feeling (my house) is gone by now," she said.
She had made the decision to leave, with only her two cats and the clothes on her back, without an evacuation order. "The flames were a whole hill away, but the radio said the fire was jumping four blocks at a time," she said.
Another Broadway Terrace resident, Gael Perrin, had just flown in from Los Angeles on a 3 p.m. flight but did not learn of the fire until she got to the terminal at San Francisco airport. She grabbed a taxi but never made it home.
At the high school she met up with a neighbor, Lynda Herskovitz, who had noticed the smell of smoke at 11 a.m. "I thought the people next door must be having a barbecue," Herskovitz said. It was two hours before she realized what was happening.
Meanwhile, Gloria Hurley was in tears. "I can't find my husband," she sobbed, adding that she was certain her home of 20 years was gone.
At Broadway and Kales in Oakland, Dorothy Lage stared teary-eyed at the burning hills, where she had lived on Buena Vista Avenue in the Rockridge section for the past 40 years.
She had been at church when the fire broke out. Her three-bedroom house, full of crystal and ceramic knickknacks, was engulfed in flames, she said.
"My husband passed away last year," said Lage, whose hair was specked with fallen ash. "It's good he didn't have to see this."
Wallace reported from Oakland; Pristin from Los Angeles. Staff writers Janet Rae-Dupree, Martha Groves and Richard Paddock contributed from Oakland and Berkeley.