When Ray Necochea was building his dream house four years ago, on a whim he wrote the story of his life on a wooden beam below the rooftop, hoping a future relative might serendipitously discover it.
With that beam and everything else inside the home obliterated in the firestorm that has ravaged southern California this week, the 55-year-old electric company worker is vowing to rebuild on the same hilltop overlooking nearby farms and mountaintops.
"The next house is going to be like our house on steroids; it's going to be a lot better," said Necochea, 55, who has four grandchildren.
Such scenes of anguish and hope for the future are taking place across southern California, where officials are gradually lifting evacuation orders to allow residents back into areas ravaged by some of the worst fires in the state's history.
Officials estimate the blazes destroyed more than 2,000 homes, often with such fierceness that little remained.
Officials opened up the town of Ramona northeast of San Diego late on Thursday, and a long lines of cars waited their turn to see what fate had befallen them.
As a "troubleman" or repair worker for the San Diego Gas & Electric Company, Necochea had already seen his destroyed home on Monday, but returned on Thursday and mused philosophically on the nature of life and loss.
"I was so devastated," he said as he looked across what had once been a 4,600 square foot, three-bedroom home with a swimming pool in an area where the sounds of cows, coyotes and birds, not the dim of modernity, are the soundtrack of daily life. "It was just a smoldering heap of ash. It was a horrible feeling; I don't wish that on anyone."
Misshapen clumps of glass were all that remained of his 500 bottles of wine in a small cellar; even his modest collection of coins transformed into dull metal. His wife rescued the family photos when they evacuated the area on Sunday.
"You've got to be thankful that no one got hurt, everyone got out," Necochea continued. "I know someone that lost a child and it doesn't compare."
Necochea moved out to Ramona about an hour's drive from San Diego in 1988, after deciding a nearer suburb where he was living had become too built up.
Five years ago, he began building the dream house he hoped to pass on to his children. In his area, homes sit on eight to 12 acres of rolling hills; his diverse neighbors include two South Africans and an Italian-Hungarian couple.
After doing some of the construction himself, Necochea moved in four years ago, just as another fierce blaze damaged the area known for its fire-friendly dry conditions and winds. In 2003, the fire spared his home.
"Fire is a cycle out here," said Necochea, who was born in Mexico and moved to California when he was two years old. "We know things are going to burn but you never think it is going to be you."
In his neighborhood, as across other California fire zones, the fire proved fickle. The homes of two of Necochea's neighbors survived unscathed while another was devastated.
His own garage storing his mother's possessions remained intact, as did the car parked outside, although the keys were incinerated inside the house. A much smaller home he built for his parents on the other side of the hill survived.
Financially, Necochea should end up fine. His house and its possessions were insured for about $1.5 million, a reflection of 35 years of hard work with the electric company and countless spare hours fixing up the place.
Yet he misses the comforts of home, which are now probably at least a year into the future. "You miss routine," he said wistfully as he left the ashes he once called home. "I miss coming home, flipping on the TV and seeing what I TiVoed."
Amid clear anguish, the genial Necochea tried to depart on an up note. "This is a great place to live," he said. "It's just temporarily out of service.