REDWOOD VALLEY, Calif. (KTVU) - The Shepherd family phoned their loved ones at 1:00 a.m. Monday to announce they were fleeing their rural home in Redwood Valley, as wildfire threats escalated at an alarming rate. The Shepherds had no way to warn their family of the tragedy they were preparing to endure.
Mindi Ramos, sister to Sara Shepherd, may never know the full details. But, for now, she knows three of the Shepherds are in the hospital with major burns and her nephew, 14-year-old Kai Shepherd, is dead. The mother and daughter can’t speak and the father is 90 miles away. Their home is destroyed and it’s unclear if the living Shepherds know of Kai’s death.
“Devastation and swirling minds,” Ramos said when describing her current state. “There are so many facets to this tragedy.”
The Shepherds left their mountain home in Mendocino County in a car and headed down their mile-long, winding driveway. But when the vehicle caught on fire, Jon Shepherd (father), Sara Shepherd (mother), Kressa Shepherd (daughter) and Kai Shepherd (son), proceeded on foot.
There’s a degree of uncertainty with what took place between the 1:00 a.m. phone call and when the Shepherds were found. Paul Hanssen, a neighbor who survived the firestorm in a trailer, found Kai, Kressa and Sara Shepherd. Kai was already dead. Kressa, 17, and Sara Shepherd, 40, were badly burned.
“He (Hanssen) stayed with the girls, kept them comfortable, and gave them water,” Ramos said. “They were lucid. He called 9-1-1 and got the firefighters there.”
Jon Shepherd, 45, was not on the scene. He reportedly made it further down the mountain and firefighters found him. He’s now in the Bothin Burn Center at San Francisco’s Saint Francis Memorial Hospital. Ramos and her family learned of the whereabouts when they began searching local hospital admittances.
Jon Shepherd is reportedly stable. He had a minor heart attack but recovered and is not expected to need surgery for the burns that span across 45-percent of his body. Sara and Kressa Shepherd each sustained burns on 60-percent of their body and Kressa has such severe muscle damage below her left knee that doctors may need to amputate. Both Kressa and Sara Shepherd had one skin graft surgery and are currently in two separate, neighboring hospitals in Sacramento.
“They’re across the street from each other,” Ramos said, who is with her mother and father. “We’re grateful we can spend time with both of them.”
Neither Kressa nor Sara Shepherd can speak. They have breathing tubes down their throats and are heavily sedated to combat the excruciating pain. All they can do is respond to yes or no questions – mostly pertaining to pain. It’s still unclear if they know of Kai’s death, said Ramos.
For now, Ramos and her parents are remaining by Kressa and Sara Shepherd's side and are attempting to gain more clarity with regards to Jon Shepherd. And despite the tragedy that’s difficult to grasp, Ramos has found comfort in the community’s outpour of support.
“As weird as it may sound, there’s feelings of gratitude,” Ramos said. “Our community is showing up in so many ways.”
A generosity fundraiser was started by Ramos. In less than 24 hours, the community helped to raise $30,000 of the $100,000 goal. It’s a modest goal. Because in addition medical bills, the home they built did not have fire insurance. No company would provide it because of the desolate location.
Along with monetary support and friends promoting the fundraiser on social media, community members have offered to retrofit Sara Shepard’s parents’ house – where they will recover after being released from the hospital. It's likely they will need accommodations to be able to move about their living space. The parent’s house is also in Redwood Valley, but it was spared from the devastation.
Doctors are not yet sure when Kressa and Sara Shepherd will regain their speech. It’s believed that the sedatives and breathing tubes are the main cause. As Ramos observes Sara notify the doctors of pain presence through head nods, she describes her as looking “eager to talk.”
This multi-faceted tragedy comes with an enormous amount of heartache. Additionally, like with many harmed by the onslaught of wine country fires, it comes with a cost. Rebuilding will cost, medical attention will cost and the memorial service for Kai will cost.
“More than anything, Kressa, Sara and Jon will need every ounce of our communal strength and hope,” Ramos said.
An earlier version of the story misspelled the Shepherd's name.