(CNN)Jeannette Frescas was not concerned about the Thomas Fire until the massive blaze reached her neighborhood in Ventura, California.
“At midnight, I woke up with a flashlight in my face,” Frescas told CNN affiliate KEYT. “I looked out my window and there were flames that were like, a hundred feet, all around us.”
Like many residents, Frescas was caught off guard by the fire that has roared across Southern California for 13 days. She’s one of tens of thousands of residents who piled into cars and fled as ferocious winds drove the third-largest blaze in modern state history through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
“What was once a paradise was like a war zone,” Frescas said of her apartment complex, which was destroyed by the blaze. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve been through in my entire life.”
Ventura resident Patricia Rye woke up to her son-in-law pounding on her door. She didn’t get a chance to pack any valuables, and fled her home of 17 years in the dead of the night.
“I didn’t have time to take anything,” Rye told the affiliate. “My wallet, or any of my personal things. I literally left with the clothes on my back. If I had been thinking I would have got into my car, but I wasn’t thinking so my car was there.”
Meanwhile, residents who had evacuated their homes in Ventura County — where the fire began — were allowed to return Saturday.
Jim Holden considers himself lucky that firefighters saved his home and items.
“They put a water screen between my house and the house next door that was burning in an attempt to save it, but they didn’t think they were going to be successful,” he told CNN affiliate KABC. “They broke in and they saved my family photos and my computer, and things that they thought would be important to me.”