OAKLAND, Calif. -- Roland Gibb was in church when he heard the sirens.
"All of a sudden we saw smoke," he said. "I ran home and saw ashes and flames all around me. Then, my God. . . ."
Mr. Gibb's anguish poured out as he stood at an Oakland evacuation center yesterday with his hair full of ash and face darkened with soot.
Across the east San Francisco Bay area, hundreds pondered their losses.
"We saw the smoke coming from behind the Claremont Hotel," said the 79-year-old, whose home is -- was -- in the Rockridge section of Berkeley, south of the University of California campus.
"I saw the neighbor's house was completely ablaze. It was a solid sheet of flame 50 feet from my own house. I looked and saw my other neighbor's house was on fire. Then the police came and told me I had to leave."
Joseph Knowland, retired editor and publisher of the Oakland Tribune, got within three blocks of his home near Lake Temescal.
"Then we saw the whole block," he said, brushing tears from his smoke-reddened eyes. "The fire had consumed all the houses.
"Everything we own is gone. Everything my wife and I accumulated over 41 years of marriage."
People donned surgical masks or strapped wet washcloths over their mouths and noses in an effort to protect themselves from the dense, acrid smoke.
Health officials warned of the danger of inhaling fumes from hundreds of burning poison oak plants.
People waited and watched, helplessly, as the fire gulped down houses four at a time and sheets of flame 200 feet high danced on the horizon.
Some took pictures. Hundreds looked for somewhere to volunteer their services, carrying hoses, picks or shovels. In the early hours of the fire, people came up from Berkeley to help, escorting elderly people from their homes, turning off utilities and helping to unroll fire hoses.
"It's amazing how friendly people are being," said Tim Moulton, a local hospital administrator, as he watered down his parents' Oakland house. "It's really pulled this neighborhood together.
"Unfortunately, it looks like there won't be much neighborhood left."