KERNVILLE — The fear was not immediate and not yet urgent Thursday afternoon when Angela Looper first saw the massive smoke cloud appear over the mountain ridge that rises up behind her South Lake neighborhood near the shores of Isabella reservoir.
The real fear — the panic — came later when she saw the fire crest the ridge and race down the hillside at a speed she hadn’t known was possible.
“From the time I saw the flames, it took 15 minutes until my house was on fire,” Looper, 34, said Friday as she stood in front of Kernville Elementary School with her fiance, Lucas Martin, 25. The school had been turned into a Red Cross evacuation center where 140 slept overnight and many more have come for meals and other services.
The few minutes Looper had were spent frantically throwing a few items of clothing into her car and trying to get away alive with her two children. Scores of other neighbors were doing the same thing. The scene was bedlam, Looper recalled, as cars backed up in the race to escape.
“It was so hot the hairs on my arms were singed,” she said of the powerful heat generated by the flames.
At the same time, Martin, now frantic, was screaming up Highway 14 returning from a job in Rosamond. It was he who had learned about the fire and called his future wife to warn her.
"What fire," she had asked.
“She received no knock on her door (from emergency responders),” Martin said. “No loudspeaker. Nothing.”
There was not a fire engine, helicopter or tanker in sight, Looper said. They had no warning.
The couple believe their next-door neighbor, an elderly man who was deaf, never made it out. He refused to leave, and they believe his mobile home was destroyed in the firestorm. There has been no confirmation of their fears from authorities, and the couple hope they are wrong. But they don't believe they are.
They also hope they can find a way to start over after this disaster. Nearly everything they owned is now gone.
"I had a blanket from my great-great grandmother. She's not alive anymore. Things like that you can't replace," Looper said.
Near tears and traumatized, Looper said she was astonished that there had been no official warning, at least not one that reached her.
“We could have died," she said.
One moment she was watching TV. The next, they were running for their lives.
Before the firestorm struck, she had been watching "2012," a movie depicting apocalyptic disaster.
"We were watching the apocalypse on TV," she said. "Then we walked out into it."
It was about 4:30 p.m. Thursday when Bodfish resident Travis Hickey realized the fire was headed for his sister's place in the Lakeland Tract, not far from Isabella Dam.
He and he wife, Heather, headed there to see if they could help.
"Me and my wife, we started evacuating their home right then," he said Friday.
"We loaded my truck and my sister's car. Then my mom showed up and we loaded her car, too."
Hickey and his brother-in-law began wetting down the yard with garden hoses -- until they noticed neighbors up the street attempting to cut a fire line as the fire moved closer. They grabbed shovels and hoes and joined the effort.
Red fire-retardant laid down by an aerial tanker wasn't as effective as he thought it would be, Hickey said.
"The grass is so tall, it (the retardant) sits on top of the grass and the fire still burns through," he said.
It appeared their efforts were successful, or maybe they were just among the lucky ones.
"It was pretty scary up there," Hickey said. "If the wind changes, you'd better run."
Bill Lathorpe looked a little shell-shocked as he stood among rows of cots at Kernville Elementary School, which doubled as a Red Cross evacuation center Friday after hundreds of Kern River Valley residents, including Lathorpe, were displaced Thursday by the fast-moving Erskine Fire.
Asked where his lives when he's not sleeping on a cot, the 87-year-old was blunt.
"I used to live in South Lake. Until yesterday."
"It's gone now," he said. "I'm on Social Security and didn't have enough money for insurance. So that's why I say it's gone. Really gone."
Early Thursday afternoon, Lathorpe said, he started to smell smoke. After 32 years in the valley, he's seen fires come and fires go. But this one was different.
"I've never seen anything like this one," he said. "When it came down the hill it was like a blast furnace. The temperature changed probably 30 degrees because of the hot wind."
"They hadn't evacuated us yet, hadn't said a word," he said of fire officials.
Lathorpe doesn't own a car, so he loaded some valuables in a wheelbarow and started toward the highway. He ended up at James Station, a store adjacent to Highway 178, but the power was out.
"Electrical transformers were exploding," he recalled.
Eventually a neighbor loaded Lathorpe's things in his truck and drove him around the lake to the Red Cross center in Kernville.
"He lost everything, too," Lathorpe said of his neighbor. "But he had insurance."
Asked what he will do now, the octagenarian seemed at a loss.
"I really don't know right now," he said, pausing to think about it.
The question of his future, he said, is "kind of just hanging there."