California Journal: A family of four tried to outrun the firestorm. Only three made it
I drove as far as I could on Sweetland Road, a private dirt lane up a mountain in Redwood Valley northeast of Ukiah.
When I came upon two incinerated vehicles — Jon and Sara Shepherd’s cars — I got out and walked the rest of the way. Soon I came upon the smoldering remains of the home the Shepherds built two years ago a mile and a half from the main road in this sparsely populated part of Mendocino County.
After all the catastrophic fire scenes this last week in Northern California — the scorched neighborhoods, the blackened fields, the desperate evacuees — I was still stunned by how unspeakably sad it was to come upon a perfectly intact black San Francisco Giants cap, sitting in the middle of the road.
It belonged to 14-year-old Kai Shepherd, who burned to death in this spot, yards from his home, early Monday morning.
It is hard to imagine their terror. Hurricane-force winds pushed a wall of fire, smoke and burning embers up their hill in a matter of minutes. On foot and unprotected, the four were soon overcome.
Kai’s mother, Sara, and sister, Kressa, were saved by a neighbor, Paul Hanssen, who had survived the firestorm by locking himself in a metal trailer that he’d pushed against rocks on his property.
About 5:30 Monday morning, after Hanssen emerged, he heard the cries of the two women, both severely burned and clinging to life. They had been on the ground, incapacitated, for hours. He asked where Kai and his father were. “They both said they didn’t know,” Hanssen told me.
Hanssen called 911. Another miracle: He got through.
“He got water for them from their water heater, and squeezed it into their mouths with a towel,” said Mindi Ramos, Sara’s sister. “He held them when they got cold. He assured them that help was coming. Kressa told him, ‘I just want to go to the hospital now.’”
Just before help arrived, Hanssen thought he heard rescuers’ radios, so he ran down the road. It was then that he found Kai’s body, against an embankment, about 50 feet from his mother and sister.
Paramedics only had one stretcher, which prolonged the rescue. “As soon as they got there,” Ramos said, “my sister lost her grip on reality.”
After the first stretcher crew took Sara, Hanssen said, “one of the guys had the presence [of mind] to spread the same towel I had been using, to feed them water, on the boy.”
Later, he and another neighbor, Efren Turner, walked back up the hill and put a sheet over Kai’s body. “We paused a moment with our hands on him, speaking solemnly, and praying for him,” Hanssen said. “We didn’t feel right leaving him alone on the road up there. But the coroner/sheriff was there to get him within an hour.”
No one knew what had happened to Kai’s father. Jon had become separated from his family. When Sara and the kids ran uphill toward their home, he’d run down toward the main road, collapsing before he got there.
Because he was closest to the main road, however, paramedics had found him first.
The second guessing and guilt that follow tragedies like this are almost too much to bear.
On Friday, I stopped to talk to Turner, who was cleaning up his property with a couple of friends. They wore respirators and were covered in soot.
When he saw the first flames about midnight Sunday, Turner said, he called several neighbors to alert them. Some didn’t answer.
“I woke Jon up and told him there was a fire and he needs to get ready to leave and that I would call him if we needed to evacuate,” Turner told me, standing next to his burned-out truck.
Turner also woke his own farm crew, who lives in small cabins on his land. At one point, he said, he was watching the fire come toward him and said out loud, to no one, “If we leave now, we’ll live.”
As he was driving out, he called Jon again. “I didn’t explain the gravity of the situation clearly enough to him,” Turner said with regret. “They took too long.”
Kai Logan Shepherd appears to be the youngest person whose life was claimed by the fires that have ravaged the wine country.
He was a shy eighth-grader at Eagle Peak Middle School. He loved the Giants and pitched in the Babe Ruth League. He was a wrestler, said his aunt, “stocky and strong, with a great big smile and wonderful dimples.” Recently, he had begun playing the sax in his school band.
Kressa is a junior at Ukiah High School. Her friends think she is a nerd because she loves hanging out with her parents.
Sara works at the Safeway in Ukiah, in customer service, which she loves, Ramos said. Jon is a carpenter and contractor who has worked for a powder coating business.
The Shepherds met when Sara was 15 and Jon was 20. It was a family scandal, said Ramos, but it was true love.
I met Mindi Ramos at a hotel Friday night in Sacramento.
Sara, 40, is here at UC Davis Medical Center. Kressa, 17, is across the street at Shriners Hospital for Children. Jon, 44, is in San Francisco at St. Francis Memorial’s Bothin Burn Center. All were airlifted from Ukiah Valley Medical Center and remain sedated.
No one knows what they know about Kai, or what they remember about the night of the fire.
“We will have some terrible news to break,” Ramos said. “We have been advised not to volunteer the tragic information. Until they ask, we won’t tell them.”
Jon suffered burns over 45% of his body. “There was no muscle damage, which is great news,” Ramos said. “They have 100% confidence in his full recovery.”
Both Sara and Kressa were burned over 60% of their bodies.
Sara’s hands, said Ramos, “are severely burned. Her legs are pretty burned. But she still has most of her beautiful long brown hair.”
Doctors performed a tracheotomy on her during her first surgery; she is not yet able to talk.
Kressa’s legs were so badly wounded that doctors removed both of them below the knee. Her face was also badly burned, her aunt said. “There was no muscle damage to her face,” Ramos said. “So there is enough structure to rebuild.”
Her corneas appear to be fine. “It will be a great blessing to us if Kressa retains her eyesight and hands,” said Ramos, “because she is a very talented artist.”
Sara’s mother, who was at the hospital in Ukiah checking on Jon when Sara was brought in, screaming in pain, would later sign the consent for Kressa’s amputations.
“It was the best decision,” said Ramos, her eyes filling with tears. “We are going to get Kressa the most kick-ass prosthetics we can. She is phenomenal. She is the strongest girl I know. She is my warrior princess.”
The Shepherds, said Ramos, did not have fire insurance, so she has launched a fundraising campaign for them. Besides rebuilding, there will be many other costs to bear. Her parents are already retrofitting their own home to accommodate wheelchairs and medical equipment.
The path to recovery for this family will be brutal. They will need all the support, courage and strength they can muster.