Courtesy Mandi Ramos
SANTA ROSA, California — As a series wildfires broke out across Northern California this week, Sara Shepherd called her mother in the middle of the night to tell her the family was getting ready to flee their Redwood Valley home.
Moments later, Sara and her husband, Jon, loaded up their two cars along with their daughter, son, and two dogs, and drove away.
But as the family was attempting to leave, flames overwhelmed their rural hillside property, accessible only by a winding driveway. They abandoned their cars and made a run for it.
Jon, badly burned, was found by firefighters near the bottom of the hill. Sara and 17-year-old Kressa, also suffering serious burns, were located up the hill hours later by a neighbor. When the neighbor went to get them water, he found the body of Kai, 14, about 30 feet away.
Rich Pedroncelli / AP
Roughly 20 fires have erupted in Northern California since Sunday night, leaving more than 170,000 acres burned and 5,700 homes and businesses destroyed. By Friday, 32 people had been found dead — but hundreds more have been reported missing.
At first, the Shepherds' relatives didn't worry. Sara hadn't sounded afraid on the phone and didn't mention how close the fire was, so they believed the family must have made it out OK. But after a day with no contact, Sara's sister Mindi Ramos checked hospitals and began piecing together the devastation that had happened.
Now, relatives and friends of the Shepherds are raising money for the family, who have not only lost a son and brother, but remain badly injured themselves. None of them have yet been told about Kai's death, said Ramos.
"The most frightening part is having to tell them," Ramos said. "I don't know how I am going to be able to tell that to my sister. They are going to ask what happened and I'm going to have to look her in the eyes and tell her."
Sara is the most lucid, Ramos said, and simple movements such as raising an arm are giving relatives hope. She was burned on 60% of her body and has already gone through two surgeries, Ramos said.
Kressa was also burned on 60% of her body — so badly that both her legs have had to be amputated below the knee. Jon was burned on 45% of his body.
Their home, built by Jon, a carpenter, as well as their belongings were destroyed in the fast-moving blaze, Ramos said. The family didn't have fire insurance because of the home's rural location, but they couldn't imagine living anywhere else, she said.
"We grew up here," Ramos said. "My mom and dad have lived here for 45 years."