Until the evacuation orders were lifted at 10 a.m. Sunday, Paul Reide held out hope that his home on tidy, tree-lined Montrose Place in the foothills north of downtown Santa Barbara had survived last week's devastating Jesusita fire.
Less than 30 minutes later, the tall, silver-haired retired salesman stood forlornly on a block of concrete that was once the foyer of the 3,000-square-foot tri-level home he liked to call "a quiet little paradise."
"My heart is racing and I have knots in my stomach," he said. "I'm looking at a horror story. The last thing I expected. Just rubble and ashes. There is absolutely nothing left to salvage."
A few yards away, next-door neighbor Catherine Gautier-Downes and her twin daughters, Julie and Kristen, 18, searched through the scorched ruins of their home for keepsakes. "Here's something," Gautier-Downes said, holding up a small, bronze Buddhist statue.
"I had it perched on the roof to scare off birds," she said, flicking ashes off the statue's shoulders. "But it wasn't much help with fire."
They were among the few who lost their homes on Montrose Place and among 77 whose homes were destroyed throughout the county since Tuesday.
Up and down Montrose Place, firefighters were stamping out the few remaining hot spots as returning neighbors -- energized by their good fortune -- exchanged warm embraces in the street and swapped stories about narrow escapes.
By noon Sunday, nearly every wooden fence on the street was adorned with colorful hand-painted signs that simply said, "Thank you firefighters." Adding a touch of blue to a sign festooned with big red hearts, 6-year-old Laura Winoker said, "Some firefighters passed by and saw my sign. They walked up and said, 'Hey, that's really good.' "
"It's the end of a week from hell," said David Damiano, 43, whose home across the street from Reide was spared. "My house is fine. There's not even a trace of smoke inside."
Stark differences in damage sustained among homes only a few feet apart was not unusual, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Sergio Sanchez, who was dispatched to Montrose when the fire went through Tuesday afternoon.
"It's the result of an ember seeding itself inside a structure, then just taking off," he said. "That, plus plain bad luck."
By Sunday morning, all but 362 residents of more than 30,000 evacuated countywide were allowed to return home. Many of them were residents of Holly Road, about a mile north of Montrose. The single-lane sinuous road, which is lined with mansions with panoramic views of canyon vistas and the Pacific Ocean, remained closed as firefighters doused flare-ups and utility workers replaced fallen power lines.
Nonetheless, a few people managed to penetrate law enforcement blockades and take stock of their losses. Among them was Roelf Bosma, who on Sunday flew to Santa Barbara from a vacation spot in Cabo San Lucas to find out if his 91-year-old father's ridge-top home was still standing.
"My heavens," Bosma muttered, striding through mounds of shattered red roof tiles and chinaware, mangled plumbing and charred timber. "The family celebrated holidays here. Now it's gone. All gone."
Bosma flipped open his cellphone to give his wife, Stella, who was still in Cabo San Lucas, the bad news.
"I'm standing in ground zero for the Bosma family," he said. "Even the chimney is leveled."
Later, he sifted through the ashes with his hands, searching for something to take to his father, who was staying with a family friend. He settled on a palm-sized blue vase and a broken teacup decorated with images of roses.