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California

‘It was apocalyptic.’ Residents had no warning as fire destroy homes, lives

The smell of smoke startled Nathan Magee as he settled down to watch television in his eastern Kern County home.

Moments later, Magee, 54, and his wife Teresa, 55, watched Thursday night as flames bore down a mountain toward their South Lake community in Kern County. Magee frantically searched for his keys and his wallet. The couple grabbed their dog Dodger and cats Baby and Tiger and ran for their car — already low on gas — as ash and pieces of burnt wood rained down on them.

“It was a firestorm,” Nathan Magee said early Friday from a grade-school-turned-evacuation-center, not knowing whether his home still stood.

For Magee and other residents around Lake Isabella, the Erskine fire seemed to come out of nowhere and strike without warning. Many ran for their lives as the wind-whipped fire barreled from the foothills down into the tiny towns that dot California 178 east of Bakersfield.

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Fueled by drought conditions, massive stands of dying trees and soaring temperatures, the fire consumed 46 square miles and destroyed more than 100 structures, making it the most destructive wildfire so far this year in California.

Authorities confirmed two deaths.

Those who did escape the fire shared harrowing stories of survival. The wind blew so strongly that it knocked down tables, and vases full of rocks, and buffeted firefighters and residents in retreat.

“The wind was so diabolical,” said Magan Weid, 57, who fled with her father and with other neighbors. “Everything was flying into your eyes. I didn’t have time to get glasses. I literally just grabbed a bag with miscellaneous crap. I didn’t have time to get anything together.”

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The fire began at the junction of Erskine Creek Road and Apollo Way shortly before 4 p.m., said Kern County Fire Department Capt. Michael Nicholas. In those early hours, fire crews frantically tried to save what homes they could, but were overwhelmed by the power of the blaze. One fire official broadcast his journey through the fire zone, showing home after home burning to the ground.

Hundreds of firefighters flooded the area Friday morning to join in the effort, officials said. Three suffered from smoke inhalation.

The fire, whose cause is under investigation, caused evacuations in communities such as Bella Vista, South Fork, Weldon, South Lake and Mountain Mesa.