Joseph Matlak woke around 4 a.m. Thursday to the yapping of his schnauzer.
This time, the talkative pup had something to bark about.
A fire erupted several doors down from where the retired man lives on Robert Street near East Harbor State Park in Danbury Township.
In just a few hours, three neighboring homes were reduced to rubble, and the charred skeletons of two others smoldered under the cloudy morning sky. The destroyed residences were vacation homes and no one was in the buildings at the time of the fire.
The siding on Matlak's cottage rippled like blue icing on a birthday cake, melted from the searing heat of the blaze.
"There were huge flames," Matlak said, observing firefighters douse lingering hot spots late Thursday morning. "We had to stand way back here because the flames were so hot."
Another neighbor, Steve Smith, said he placed the first call to 911 around 4:15 a.m. after he heard a loud boom. He lives across the street from 1996 Robert St. where firefighters said the flames originated. Smith said the fire was already working its way through the house when he called. Marblehead police arrived within minutes, he said, and were followed by firefighters from Marblehead Fire Department a short time later. Lakeside, Bay Township, Port Clinton and Catawba Island Township fire departments also assisted at the scene.
Smith said embers from the fire damaged his roof. Siding oozed down his exterior walls. Several of his front windows were broken from the heat of the flames.
Fire Chief Doug Waugh said the fire was tough because of its size, but the biggest challenge was the limited access the departments had to the engulfed homes. Robert Street is a 8-foot-wide one-lane private road, creating problems for responding departments.
Waugh said it took about six hours to knock down the flames, though firefighters were still using backhoes to uncover hot spots in the rubble early Thursday afternoon.
He said personnel from the State Fire Marshall's office had not yet determined the cause of the fire, and there is no clear estimate on the dollar amount of the damage, though it could be millions.
Cheri Justice stood glassy-eyed in a neighor's driveway and sipped a large cup of coffee as she received some reassuring words from her insurance agent. Justice owned one of the homes leveled by the fire.
She said her alarm service called her at her permanent residence in Berea at about 4:30 a.m. to tell her something was wrong. She said she drove to Danbury Township to find the seven-bedroom, five-bathroom summer retreat she owns with her brother ablaze.
She said the three-story, harborfront home was built only six years ago, and was a place her family gathered to spend time together.
"We love it way too much up here not to do something," she said, when asked about rebuilding.
Richard Euler, Bowling Green, also made a bleary-eyed early morning trip to Danbury Township after the fire department called him around 7:30 a.m.
A cottage he's owned since 1978 was gutted by the fire.
"All of my paintings, the originals from Put-in-Bay, are gone," he said. "My record collection -- I've been collecting 78s since I was a kid -- were in there with my good record player."
He said his cottage was probably too damaged to save, but he said the fire could have been a lot worse. Firefighters were able to protect the propane tank next to his house which he used for heating.
Euler said if the tank had gone up, firefighters might have lost the rest of the block.
Waugh said the three homes that were leveled were served with natural gas. He said the meters melted off the houses in the fire.