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Flames fickle in their ferocity

  • Story Highlights
  • Returning evacuees experience a full range of emotions
  • One family's home still standing amid ashes of neighbors' dwellings
  • "We're going to rebuild ... We can make it our home again"
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By Debra Krajnak
CNN
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(CNN) -- Relief. Guilt. Crushing sorrow.

Southern California's wildfires have touched down in some places like tornados -- destroying some homes while leaving others standing.

In a neighborhood littered with charred, smoldering debris, the Rancho Bernardo home of Pepe and Carolina Galmes was relatively unscathed. That left them stunned, especially because the forest behind the home was destroyed.

The house in northern San Diego County dodged the roaring Witch wildfire, the area's largest, that by Wednesday had burned 196,420 acres.

"We believed the whole day of Monday that the house was gone because when we left, the smoke alarms were going on and also there was raining fire," Carolina Galmes said.

"Our children had sparks all over their hair ... when they were going into the car, so we believed the house was going to be burned completely.

"(When) we saw it from the highway, we don't believe our eyes," she said. "We were calling our family and telling them the house was still there." Video Watch the couple describe their disbelief »

Pepe Galmes told CNN they haven't been able to approach the home -- but seeing it from a highway was enough cause for muted celebration.

All the other homes on their blocks are gone.

"Just one week ago, we were celebrating our neighbor's 50th birthday and we were in their house next door, and now it's gone," Pepe Galmes said.

His wife said she had spoken to the neighbor on the phone, and she's "destroyed."

Trudy McCune fled her Orange County home Monday morning with her son, Kevin. Although the house was surrounded by flames, it survived.

"It just got within a few blocks of us and pretty much surrounded us," McCune said. "So it kind of missed us. It went down our street and then went on the other side of the street."

She's been staying at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, unable to return to her neighborhood to see the damage first-hand because of road closures. Her relief, she said, was quickly replaced by feelings of guilt.

"We had friends here who lost their home Monday in the apartment complex, and quite a few people from church," she said. "Kevin's Cub Scout leader, she lost her home Monday morning, so it's been kind of hard." Video Watch hard lessons on the fire lines »

Christie Williams saw her worst fears unfold on television as she watched her Shangri-la Ranch in Ramona go up in flames.

The ranch is near the area ravaged by the Cedar fire, which killed a dozen people four years ago this week as it moved swiftly through the hilly terrain, eventually consuming over 280,000 acres.

"It's horrible, because ... you're sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to find out how your house is, and there it is on the news going down. It was surreal," Williams said

"We're doing OK. I think that my kids are taking it hard, but we're trying to stay positive and give them a good role model," she said. Her family, which includes children ages 4, 2 and 1, is camping out at the San Diego stadium.

"My 4-year-old saw the fire, so she understands that the fire came to the house and it's gone. She doesn't understand that her toys are gone, though.

"So we took her over to Target, and we showed her that these things can be replaced, and we told her that the people that were in the home, all of us, can't be replaced. So the most important thing is that we are out and we're going to be OK."

"I keep telling her we're strong people," she told CNN.

Asked why she would return to an area plagued over the years with fires, Williams didn't skip a beat.

"It's my home. My kids took their first steps there. They had their first laughs, their first smiles there. I can't just leave it. I can't just walk away.

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"We're going to rebuild. We can do it. We can make it our home again.

"I can tell you this time when we do rebuild, we will use as many fire-safe (materials) and all that stuff that we can." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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