The fire department were already aware of a 'car fire' but it seemed like Nicole had a hard time convincing them this was something more (the flames were around 3 houses high and there were sounds of explosions; we later found out the "explosion" sounds came from five cars that were burnt out).
Before the fire department arrived, I grabbed the hose and started spraying down my back yard. When the fire department arrived, I went up to my back porch and tried to get some of their attention to point out that the cottage at the back of our neighbors' house was someone's house, not just a garden shed. By the time they noticed, it was too late (fortunately, the guy who lived there wasn't home). After I'd got their attention, I went back to spraying down my property; it was quite some time before one of the firemen came around to our place and told me we had to evacuate.
The firemen told us we could go back into our house sometime later, probably between 6am and 7am, and we went back in and went to sleep; when we woke up again around 11am that day, they were still working on the fire (as they'd decided the structure was unsafe and that they would only fight the fire there from outside it).
The end result was that the garage of the property diagonally adjacent to ours was destroyed, five cars in that garage ended up looking like burnt out cars you'd expect to see in war-zone news articles, and our neighbor who lived in the back cottage lost his house and all his possessions. One particularly sad part of this for him was that he
lost his fish: they survived the fire but the building was condemned and the fire fighters would not re-enter to recover them or permit anyone to enter to recover them; eventually, they passed away.
If you want a different point of view (about how the firefighters "quick attack saved a lot of other people's homes" and callers "quickly hung up after only saying a car was ablaze"), you can read the San Jose Mercury News article (which also gets the address of the destroyed home wrong: it has a 4th St address, the apartment block which lost its garage is on 5th St). There are also much better pictures on that article.
These photos were taken around 5:30am on April 4th, 2009 (exact time below each image). Unfortunately none of them show the full height of the fire. Click any of them for a larger picture.
05:22:27 - View past the back of my house, from my driveway. Flames over the top of my back shed.
05:22:50 - Looking over the shed/fence.
05:23:05 - From my balcony - at this point the firemen are still focusing on the garage.
05:23:44 - From the balcony again - there are some firemen looking at the cottage now.
05:24:04 - Photo of the shed in my back yard, with fire seen over it.
05:30:34 - Firemen start getting a little more serious, they bring a ladder around to the cottage.