VENTURA, Calif. – The flames and smoke seemed to come out of nowhere, barely giving John and Linda Keasler time to grab an envelope with their passports, jump in their car and flee for their lives.
Later, they would watch helplessly as their three-story hillside apartment building with its stunning Pacific Ocean views burned to the ground.
Throughout the Southern California communities overlooking the beachfront city of Ventura, residents were caught off guard late Monday when the hillsides exploded in flames. Santa Ana winds had pounded the region for hours, knocking out power.
"I heard a loud boom, and I woke up my husband and I said, 'I don't know what's happening,' and we looked on the balcony, and there was smoke everywhere," Linda Keasler told The Associated Press on Tuesday as she and her husband stood in the ruins of what hours earlier had been their home.
They left so quickly that they took little more than their passports and one of their two cars. Hours later they returned to find that the fire, which had leveled their apartment complex, somehow spared their other car.
Two blocks away, David Rensin and his wife had scooped up their papers, a few other belongings and their pet cat, Lola, and headed to an evacuation center at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Rensin had stepped outside shortly before midnight to see flames illuminating the full moon bright red and decided it was time to leave.
He came back the next morning to find his home had been spared.
"It was surreal," Rensin said, his voice still hoarse from the thick smoke enveloping Ventura on Tuesday. "You see these situations everywhere, and you never think it's going to happen to you, and then all of a sudden, it happens, and it happens quickly."
John Terrones was asleep when he heard a noise outside his house about the same time his phone rang. It was his son warning him that a wildfire was heading right toward him.
"I went outside and looked, and I saw the flames coming over the hill," he said.
Terrones and his wife loaded their five dogs, some cash, jewelry and a few other items into their car and fled. From a safe distance, he watched as his neighbor's house went up in flames. Somehow his was spared.
"I just watched it burn, burn, burn," he said. "It got almost to our backyard. We got very lucky."
Despite their loss, John and Linda Keasler were counting their blessings as well.
They had lived in the Hawaiian Village apartments, with what Linda Keasler calls its "million-dollar views," for two years. They hope to remain in Ventura, a city of 110,000 people 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles. With its white sandy beaches and funky old downtown, it's one of California's best-kept beautiful secrets.
Although they and their neighbors had lost everything in the fire that authorities said torched at least 150 buildings, they were grateful no one had died.
Linda Keasler said her only regret was that she didn't think to grab boxes containing the childhood photos of her two adult sons. But she said everything else inside the apartment was replaceable.
"The truth is, it's just things, it's just things," she said. "And thank God no one died."
Associated Press Writer Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles contributed to this story.