BERKELEY — They lifted up their eyes to the hills where their expensive homes were crumbling under the onslaught of the raging flames.
Thousands fled as the blaze advanced through the affluent hilly neighborhoods of Berkeley and Oakland. Many of the escapees wore bandannas, washcloths or surgical masks over their mouths as protection against the thick black soot that filled the air for miles around.
On the streets above, police officers with megaphones yelled out evacuation orders and tried to clear the areas 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."
Firefighters had to plead with another resident to seek safety.
"We need you to go, OK?," a firefighter said as the 63-year-old man sprayed water on his roof. "We've already lost hundreds of homes. There is nothing you can do right now. It's a monster."
The man finally agreed to leave.
When neighbors Robert Luse, a chemist, and Andy Sessions, an investment banker, were ordered to evacuate, they drove about a block before jumping out of their car. They ducked between houses and returned to their homes.
"We'll be on alert all night," said Luse.
They tried to protect two neighbors' homes, but to no avail. When one house burst into flames, Sessions thought "we were goners." But he survived to continue pouring water on his house.
"It looks as though I'm going to be up all night with that hose," he said. "This is all I own."
At Oakland Technical High School, an 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 International 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.
Hazel Villata and her daughters Vicki and Linda were desperately looking for Villata's husband, Art, who had refused to evacuate. They had last spoken to him at 3 p.m. before telephone lines went out.
Just before 8 p.m., Art Villata strolled into the high school to a tearful reunion with his family.
"I knew I had to come down the hill because I knew they were all worried," Villata said. "I knew that if the fire didn't kill me, they would."
When he left, the house he has lived in for 39 years in the Rockridge section was still standing, but he had no idea whether it would survive the holocaust.
At Broadway and Kales in Oakland, Dorothy Lage stared teary-eyed at the burning hills, where she had lived on Buena Vista Avenue in Rockridge 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."
By nightfall the growing disaster had become surreal. Flaming embers arced across the darkened sky, tracing trails of flame through billowing smoke and ash.
Bone-dry redwoods and pines instantly went up in roaring flames, crackling and popping all the while, whenever an ember landed in their branches. Noise from fire engines, helicopters and the fire itself created a constant din, punctuated regularly by the sound of exploding water heaters and gasoline tanks.
A telegraph pole went up in flames, prompting one resident to point it out and remark that it looked "like a burning cross."
Berkeley activist Bob Sparks, a veteran of grass-roots campaigns, saw several houses go up in flames on one hill.
"It makes things like People's Park and volleyball courts seem insignificant," he said.