The beige French country-style home in the hills, with a distant view of the sea on blue-sky days, had been built to withstand California's best punches.
Earthquake. Hurricane-force winds. Wildfire.
San Diego County on Tuesday, a day after the Witch fire had swept through Red Mountain Lane in Fallbrook. Standing on the porch that day, I saw a doorknob at my feet, sitting on a pile of ashes that had been the front door.
The interior was so incinerated I couldn't tell a sofa from a chandelier. The steel rafters sagged into rooms covered with a foot of ash, rubble and the slate tiles that had been the roof. In one room, the ceiling sprinklers were still on, as if the house couldn't accept that the fight was over.
A neighbor, Allen Yun, told me a fireball had rolled down a ridge just to the east late Monday night, and he and his father got out just before it destroyed several houses. Yun had to point to where the houses had been, because with the exception of the home where I was standing, everything was flattened.
After a couple of days of searching, I got through to the owners by phone. Shari Kunz, a bookkeeper, told me she hadn't been back to the house yet, but a neighbor had delivered the bad news.
"We built it ourselves," she said, her tone somewhere between disbelief and exhaustion. "We started in 2000, moved into it in 2001, and we've been working on it ever since."
Six months ago, she said, they finally finished.
And now this.
Friday morning at 8, the family met me in Temecula to go see the house for the first time. There was Glenn Kunz, a general contractor, and Shari, as well as their children, Daniel, 25; David, 28; Jaime, 29; and Jaime's husband, Jeremiah Boshard, a contractor who helped the Kunzes build their house. The displaced members of the family are staying at the Boshard home near Temecula for now, until they figure out what to do.
After turning off of Interstate 15, our two-car caravan began stopping every few hundred yards to take in the destruction. Some houses had been reduced to ashes, while nearby, Fallbrook's scenic beauty was still fit for a postcard, with fine, strong houses peering over the tops of avocado groves.
I drove slowly, holding off the inevitable a while longer. But finally we turned off Mission Road and headed up the lane, giving the Kunzes the first view of the house that had been a retreat for the entire family, including four grandchildren.
"I feel like I'm in a dream," Shari says, holding her face in her hands.
"Oh, my gosh."
We park in the driveway, next to Glenn's destroyed Porsche, whose wheels have melted. Jaime wraps her arms around her mother as they both sob.
"I'm so sorry," she tells her mother. "I just can't believe this. It doesn't seem real."
David was the last of the siblings living with his parents as he built his own home. To add insult to injury, he's now battling with his insurance company over the loss of his car, which was in the garage.
"I don't think you'll be driving it any time soon," Glenn says to David when they see the burned-out hulk that once was a Mercedes-Benz.
David says Mercury turned down his claim, arguing that the fire hit just past midnight, after the policy expired. David argues that the fire came through before midnight, and in any event, he says he wasn't aware his coverage was due to expire. He says the insurance company hasn't heard the last from him on the matter.