SAN DIEGO – Duke Adams was watching some late-night television at his girlfriend's parents' house in nearby Ramona, Calif., when his daughter was awakened by the noise of helicopters and the pungent smell of smoke.
"I stepped outside and there were flames surrounding the whole neighborhood. It was coming at us from all different angles," Adams said. "We just started packing up as much stuff as we possibly could."
Thousands across Southern California were evacuated from their homes as wildfires surprised residents and ravaged suburban neighborhoods over the weekend. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and more than 300,000 acres -- an area equivalent to about 470 square miles -- have burned in what has become one of the area's worst wildfire seasons.
Some people were given hours to collect their belongings, others just minutes.
Adams arrived at a Red Cross (search) shelter early Sunday and was treated by paramedics for smoke inhalation after frantically "grabbing every picture, every memory, everything we could think of."
"My face went numb, my throat hurt, my chest hurt, my legs went numb," Adams said. "I could hardly move my fingers."
Adams said he didn't know if the house was intact because authorities wouldn't allow him to return.
In one of San Diego's hardest-hit neighborhoods, residents gathered on a ridge to watch their neighbors' homes burn in a canyon below.
"The question at school will be, 'Is your house standing?"' said 15-year-old Amanda Hicok as she chatted with a group of friends from Scripps Ranch High School.
Elizabeth Ingrum already knows the answer.
"They told me my home burned down," the 16-year-old said. "I don't know where we're going to live."
Ingrum, who was spending the night at a friend's home, said she knew about a dozen other classmates in the same situation.
"I'm just waiting for someone to tell me my home is on fire," Hicok said.
The Scripps Ranch (search) area, an affluent San Diego neighborhood where home prices often reach seven figures, was ravaged by one of the most destructive fires in San Diego County history.
At least 150 homes in Scripps Ranch were destroyed or damaged, and San Diego fire officials said that was probably a conservative estimate. Police officers went door-to-door and gave hundreds of people 15 minutes or less to leave their homes.
About 100 miles north at San Bernardino International Airport, approximately 1,000 people slept in their cars, in tents pitched on asphalt, or on green cots inside a TWA hangar. A half-dozen teens watched a videotape of "Total Recall," starring Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, while volunteers served chicken dinners, chips and salsa and cookies.
Volunteers also watched over cats, fish, howling dogs and other pets in a nearby parking lot.
In Claremont, just west of Los Angeles, firefighters taking a break from battling a huge wildfires sprung back into action when flames spreading west from San Bernardino County (search) threatened their own station Sunday.
Damage from the fire ultimately was limited to two toppled utility poles. But crews went through some tense moments as they worked to bring the fire under control.
"The winds blew it faster than any of us could do anything about it," fire Inspector Roland Sprewell said. "There was literally a huge wall of flame behind the station."