It's hard to comprehend the fire destruction in Southern California until you see it from 1,400 feet.

From the backseat of a UH-60 Blackhawk helmed by a Magnum, P.I.-mustachioed sergeant named Cliff Rodgers (with the unsettling moniker Willy Nilly), I had the chance to stare down into the ash.

Above Rancho Bernardo, the fire ravaged neighborhood toured by President Bush Thursday, upscale villas sat next to lots burned so intensely, almost nothing but the foundation remained.

Swimming pools were cloudy brown, filled with soot and, sometimes, the hoses left behind in the firefight.

Click here for more photos of aerial damage.

Click here for photos on fighting the Witch Fire.

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But the flames were finicky. In many cases, expensive landscaping remained intact — mini English and Italianate gardens now framing heartache and tears.

To the north and the south, billows of grey smoke from the Witch and Harris fires made it clear that the mega-fires of October were still raging, and a low-lying blanket of fire-related smog tinged an otherwise sunny San Diego day.

Here, suspended above the city, the shadow of this natural disaster was apparent. Flames took a page from my helicopter crew chief's nickname – moving willy nilly as the destroyed or spared the homes of those who fled in fear.