SAN DIEGO -- One by one, the neighbors returned to the cul-de-sac at the end of Valladares Drive.
The Lyons home: gone. The Chaya home: ashes. The Bostwick home: leveled. The Dela Cruz home: impossible to recognize.
"I'm so sorry," Therese Dela Cruz, 24, told each of her neighbors as they came home Thursday to confirm that the Southern California wildfires had virtually wiped their end of the street off the map.
Dela Cruz, who had lived on the street for 17 years, gazed in shock at her family's home, now reduced to charred rubble. "Right there, that used to be my bedroom," she sighed.
The agonizing scene on Valladares Drive, a once-picturesque street in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of northern San Diego, was repeated throughout the region Thursday as manda-tory evacuation orders were lifted and tens of thousands of residents were allowed to return to their devastated homes.
Yet even as traffic lights blinked on and cars began to clog residential streets, the air remained thick with smoke, ash and apprehension as the total number of acres burned approached half a million and the majority of fires remained far from contained despite a calming of the Santa Ana winds.
Few streets in San Diego County were hit as soundly as Valladares.
Of 10 houses on the circle at the street's end, only one remained, that of an elderly widow everyone called the "neighborhood mother." As the neighbors gathered Thursday, they all worried where the widow, 75-year-old Helena Hyman, had gone and whether she was safe. No one had seen her leave.
Yet there were few tears from these neighbors who had fled with just a moment's notice when the blaze, aptly dubbed the Witch fire, turned unexpectedly up their canyon and threatened their homes in the middle of the night. Most spoke of groggily waking up to reverse 911 calls -- the electronic emergency notifications that alerted hundreds of thousands of Californians that they were to evacuate -- and escaping their houses only minutes before the structures started going up in flames.
"It happened so fast," Dela Cruz told one neighbor. "We literally just ran out the door in pajamas. My mother started grabbing pictures off the walls, but then she saw how close the flames were and she got so scared that she put them down and didn't even bring them along."
Few saved much of anything, largely because fires had never threatened the street in the past and because the Witch fire had been thought to be burning in another direction.
"I didn't grab my wedding rings from their holder by the sink," Nora Chaya said. "We have nothing, but I wouldn't do it any differently. I wouldn't want to risk my family's safety for a single material thing. It all can be replaced."
That was the sentiment all around on Valladares.
"We're all alive," David Lyons kept saying. "It could be worse. We will rebuild."
Late in the afternoon, a stir went up on Valladares Drive. Hyman had driven into her driveway. Everyone rushed over.
"Thank God, you are all right," Chaya said, hugging her. "We knocked on your door before we left, but you did not answer."
Another neighbor shouted from across the street: "Helena Hyman, the luckiest woman in Southern California!"
Hyman gazed at her house, a vision of undisturbed perfection in a landscape of ruins. Ten houses on either side of hers no longer existed.
"Look at all your new space," Chaya joked.
But Hyman fought tears and said, "I don't want space. I want all of you surrounding me."