SAN JOSE -- It wasn't a big fire, a Thursday evening one-alarm blaze consuming grass and brush along Coyote Creek in North San Jose, but for about 15 homeless denizens of an encampment known as Jurassic Park, it took everything they had.
The fire broke out to the north of the camp near Oakland and Schallenberger roads shortly before 6 p.m. and moved quickly, sending many residents scurrying for higher ground, and Ronald John Peer into the creek for a soak.
He emerged wet, grabbed some tools, and went to work cutting a fireline between the flames and the spot where he's been staying for a little over a year.
"I took an ax, a pick, a shovel, whatever it takes," Peer said. "Sage brush and dry grass goes up fast."
He lives farther down the creek, and San Jose fire crews stopped the burn at two or three acres so it did not reach Peer's camp.
Battalion Chief Jeff Welch said the fire was knocked down in about 40 minutes, and firefighters succeeded in stopping it before it reached the creekbed, where heavier brush means bad news. He said nobody was injured in the blaze, the cause of which remains under investigation.
But many of Peer's neighbors, surveying the scene from a nearby trail and calling out for missing cats, didn't fare so well in terms of their possessions.
Jim Turner, a founding camper at Jurassic Park who has lived there for 15 years, pointed to the charred ground where his camp used to be and said it was obvious that he lost his home.
Turner said it came on the heels of a sweep of the camp -- city workers cleared the area about three weeks ago.
"The sweep took half my stuff, but I was able to buy a tent, bedrolls and a blanket," he said, referring to a city effort to clear out homeless encampments all along the creek. "But now I lost everything I collected since the sweep."
Colleen Guest, who brings food and supplies to the camp and considers many residents her friends, said it's tragic that people trying to get by saw such a setback on Thursday.
"It took everybody's camp that I know," she said through tears. "I just see these people struggle so hard. Now they have to go find another friend with a tent."
Guest, Turner and Peer all said that between 15 and 20 camps were destroyed. Fire officials did not have an estimate.
One of Guest's good friends, 58-year-old Deborah Pino, had her possessions right on the border of the blackened wasteland and the untouched brush beyond. She was missing four cats that she hoped would turn up, and also numerous notes and drawings that she had managed to "squirrel away" to prevent them from being taken in the recent sweep. She wasn't so concerned about the material possessions.
"First we have to worry about the animals," she said. "I can redraw my cartoons."
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.