SANTA ROSA, California — As a series of 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, which is accessible only by a winding driveway. The family abandoned the cars and made a run for it.
Jon, badly burned, was found by firefighters near the bottom of the hill. Sara and their daughter, 17-year-old Kressa, who also suffered serious burns, were located up the hill hours later by a neighbor. When the neighbor went to retrieve water, he found the body of the Shepherd's 14-year-old son Kai, about 30 feet away.
Roughly 20 fires erupted in Northern California this October, leaving more than 170,000 acres burned and more than 6,700 homes and businesses destroyed. Forty-two people died and dozens were 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 to the home, 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 devastating sequence of events.
Relatives and friends of the Shepherds began raising money for the family, who not only lost a child, but remain badly injured themselves. Neither Jon nor Sara has been informed of Kai's death, or been told any other details about the tragedy.
"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 her relatives hope. Sixty percent of her body was burned in the fire, and she has already gone through two surgeries, Ramos said.
Kressa was also burned on 60% of her body — so badly that both of her legs have had to be amputated below the knee. On Oct 29., the family posted an update on their fundraising page to say that she had died from her injuries.
"We have lost Kressa Jean," the family said. "Today during a dressing change it was noticed that she was in no pain which is very unusual. They did a CT scan and it showed that her brain had been dead for some time. There was nothing the doctors could do. She is no longer in any pain and is with Kai now. Please continue to pray for strength to get through the loss of this precious soul."
Just a few days earlier, the family had posted an update noting that Jon, who was burned on 45% of his body, had also become more "lucid" as the days went on.
"t is reported that he was happy to see his visitors, but also that he has been combative," the update read. "Anyone that knows Jon, knows this is good news — because that is him for sure! It is so great to see bits of their personalities coming through. Jon is not yet talking and as far as we know has not inquired about the fire or family."
The Shepherds' home, built by Jon, a carpenter, was destroyed in the fast-moving blaze, Ramos said, along with all of their belongings. The family didn't have fire insurance because of the home's rural location, she said, but couldn't imagine living anywhere else, she said.
"We grew up here," Ramos said. "My mom and dad have lived here for 45 years."
Claudia Koerner is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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Brianna Sacks is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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