Hundreds flee as fires randomly take, spare California homes

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VENTURA, Calif. – For a brief time, Bob Pazen thought he had been one of the lucky ones, a man whose house had somehow escaped the ferocious wind-driven fires that destroyed at least 150 other structures in his hillside neighborhood overlooking this picturesque beachfront town.

Pazen, his wife, son and their dog had fled just ahead of the raging flames Monday night, and when he returned Tuesday morning he was delighted to see their home still standing.

But after leaving to move the cars he'd left behind the night before, Pazen returned later Tuesday to discover the blaze had doubled back.

"The house was totally engulfed in flames," he said.

His story was just one of many illustrating the unpredictability of the flames that had hop-scotched downhill toward the Pacific Ocean on Monday and Tuesday with devastating effect, destroying homes seemingly at random while leaving others untouched.

Pazen had been sleeping when his son awakened him, shouting, "Hey, get out of bed and let's go."

John Terrones was also asleep when he heard a noise outside about the same time his phone began to ring. It was his son calling to warn him a wildfire was heading right toward him.

"I went outside and looked, and I saw the flames coming over the hill," he said.

He 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 while his was spared.

"I just watched it burn, burn, burn," he said. "It got almost to our backyard. We got very lucky."

David Rensin was another of the lucky ones.

He'd stepped outside to check on things about an hour after the winds had knocked out power throughout his neighborhood. When he saw flames illuminating the full moon bright red he decided it was time to leave.

Rensin, his wife and their cat spent a night in their car at an evacuation center at Ventura's beachside county fairgrounds. As he looked up the hill at his neighborhood he was fairly certain his home was gone. He was grateful to find it untouched the next day.

Two blocks away the three-story Hawaiian Village apartment complex had burned to the ground.

John and Linda Keasler had just enough time to grab an envelope with their passports and flee their first-floor apartment, leaving one of their two cars behind. They returned the next day to discover that the fire that reduced their entire 52-unit apartment complex to a smoldering pile of rubble had somehow spared their other car.

She and her husband have lived in Ventura for two years, and they say they hope to remain in the 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 disappointed she didn't think to grab two boxes containing childhood photos of her adult sons as she headed out the door, Keasler added there was nothing else in the couple's apartment that can't be replaced.

"Those things we can always get back," she said. "The truth is it's just things, it's just things, and thank God no one died.""

Pazen was similarly philosophical.

"We're alive and we're healthy," he said. "You can always rebuild. It's not a loss of life or anything."

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Associated Press Writer Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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