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Fire strikes man's house twice in year

Eleven months and a week after Mark Topel's house was burned to cinders by the Oakland fire, the unthinkable happened. The mostly rebuilt house burned down again.

"I feel like I'm in a bad dream and I'm just moving under water," Topel said Friday as he surveyed the wreckage of his home. "We were going to be the first. I pushed heaven and earth to get in here but it wasn't to be."

Topel, a San Francisco lawyer, and his girlfriend, Donnis Bertolli, had dined on the redwood deck of their almost-finished home Thursday night before heading back to their temporary home.

About 2 a.m. Friday, they got the call from neighbors and tore back up the hill, only to watch a year of hard work go up in smoke.

Topel estimated damage at $750,000. Assistant Fire Chief Alford Nero said preliminary reports indicated the fire started when solvents left by refinishers burst into flame.

For neighbors, the fire reawakened memories of the fierce wildfire Oct. 20, 1991, that killed 25 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes.

"It's eerie," Susie Raub said. "Just seeing it burn . . . last night, it was like the whole thing over again."

Topel, meanwhile, was back to square one, having sold the house he is living in, thinking he would be in the new one by Halloween. "I'm right back to where I was a year ago," he said.

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