Clarence Patterson stood in flip-flops on a charred wall of his house, shaking his head over a fire that got so out of control Tuesday afternoon that it destroyed 11 houses, damaged three others, and likely is the worst residential fire in at least 100 years in Ashland.
"It's something you think will never happen," said the 73-year-old.
Patterson and other homeowners returned to what was left of their homes on Oak Knoll Drive Wednesday morning.
In some cases only the chimneys remained, while other houses had bedrooms or closets that were relatively untouched.
The homes fell like dominoes as the fire roared through the west side of Oak Knoll, sparing houses a short distance away on the east side of the street.
In the aftermath, homeowners, most of whom found temporary lodging, talked to insurance adjusters or just stared in disbelief.
Brian Patterson, who lives in his father's house with his 10-year-old son, Vance, said he had made three trips in and out of the house while it was on fire to retrieve musical instruments.
At 5:08 p.m., he called his mother to let her know the fire had crossed the freeway and was racing toward his house.
When it hit a tree, he knew the fire was out of control.
"Suddenly, there was 80 feet of flames that sounded like a loud jet," he said.
Within minutes, his fence was on fire and flames danced on his roof.
Patterson said he could make it only into the garage on his last trip because the heat was so intense as the back side of his house burned.
At first, Patterson thought the fire department was slow to respond, but he didn't realize the fire had started on the other side of the freeway.
Patterson's cat, Congo, was saved, but a pet snake was consumed in the blaze.
Some of the residents looked for belongings Wednesday, even though they were warned to stay away from the unsafe remains of their homes.
"Oh, my God," said Lisa Jones when a friend found her photo album. "That's a good find."
The 30-year-old, who lives with her boyfriend, Nanosh Lucas, said she's trying not to get stressed out because she's five months' pregnant.
"We had a crib and a couple of baby things," she said.
Her cat, Lucy, ran off during the fire and hasn't been seen since. Jones put out food and water next to where the house stood.
A few doors down, Danna Gustafson said she was on her computer when she saw smoke engulfing the street.
"I came out the front door and saw this huge ball of fire coming toward us," she said. "I started screaming, and my husband thought I was crazy."
They grabbed their two dogs and fled the neighborhood in their car, spending the night in White City with friends.
As she prepares to deal with her insurance company, Gustafson said her bills are already mounting.
"I spent $300 last night on sundries and underwear," she said. "Then, we had to go over to Rite-Aid to get some prescriptions for my husband."
Despite her ordeal, Gustafson said she has broken down only once.
"You have to have a life or you just sit down and cry," she said.
Next door to the Gustafsons, Dan Thomas' house was the last house on the block damaged by fire.
Even though the walls were relatively intact, much of the roof was caved in.
"It's a total loss," Thomas said.
Thomas, a contractor, said he wants to rebuild his house himself.
He managed to get into the house before it was condemned, salvaging clothing, books and other belongings.
His 17-year-old son, Brady, was able to retrieve a medallion he'd won from a state football competition.
Brady was at football practice Tuesday afternoon at Ashland High School when his parents came walking across the field to tell him the news.
"I thought I was in trouble or something," he said.
Across the street from the devastation, Jay Rawson stood in his front yard, saying he was surprised the fire didn't jump over to his side.
"I stood right here by this tree and the heat was so intense I had to leave," he said.
Some of the needles on the pine tree appeared singed as Rawson stood underneath, but the house behind him was completely intact.
"I'm not a religious man, but I know a miracle when I see it," he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail email@example.com.