PLEASANT HILL -- Ryan Mooney crouched next to his kitchen door around 1:10 a.m. Wednesday, seeing through the bottom crack what appeared to be flickering lights in the garage.
His wife had awakened him moments earlier after hearing loud noises from the garage, wondering if a stranger was in their Dove Court home.
"So," he said, "I slowly open the door, thinking I'm getting ready to startle a burglar."
Instead, a cloud of black smoke rushed into the home and forced Mooney, his wife and his 11-year-old daughter to flee. The one-alarm fire partly damaged the home and destroyed the garage, along with two cars parked in the driveway, causing small explosions that awakened neighbors.
Mooney, 32, and his family escaped out a back door and climbed a back fence to safety. A power line near the house exploded and fell near the driveway as the family was evacuating. PG&E crews were needed to shut down the power.
"I don't think it's hit me yet," Mooney said. "I'm thankful that everyone's OK. When you think about it, a house is just a house. Everyone's OK, so we'll handle it."
Mooney said that he had spent part of Tuesday staining his decks and that he left four to six oily rags in his garage. The odor of the rags eventually became too difficult to ignore, he said, and he moved the rags outside about 9:30 p.m. About four hours later, his wife heard loud bangs.
She wasn't the only one.
"Woke us up," said Joe O'Neal, a neighbor who lives around the corner and about six houses away. "Loud pops. Like mini-explosions. Actually, I thought they were gun shots when I first heard them."
The explosions, Contra Costa Fire Protection District officials said, came from the two cars -- a Mercedes and a Land Rover -- that were destroyed, fire inspector Lisa Martinez said. Investigators believe parts of the car tires may have exploded and that the other explosions may have been caused by magnesium in the car batteries, Martinez said.
Investigators have not said what caused the fire, but Mooney said the oily rags may have combusted. Mooney said that the house likely will be salvaged but that the family will live at a residential hotel for an indefinite period. Fire crews did not put a monetary estimate on the damage to the home.
The family also had several pets, he said, including a Macaw bird and some rabbits. Mooney grabbed the bird, and all but one of the rabbits were found in the aftermath.
Contact Rick Hurd at 925-945-4789 and follow him at