The rising human toll of wildfires that killed at least 43 people in Northern California this month now includes a 17-year-old Mendocino County girl whose younger brother also died as their family tried to flee oncoming flames in the early hours of the Redwood Valley fire.
Kressa Jean Shepherd of Redwood Valley died Sunday night in Sacramento after three weeks at Shriners Hospital for Children, where doctors struggled to treat her severe burns, her aunt, Mindi Ramos, said.
She was the ninth person to die from the Redwood fire, which started in the Mendocino National Forest and spread to Potter and Redwood valleys the night of Oct. 8 and into the next morning.
Her brother, Kai Logan Shepherd, 14, did not survive the family’s attempted escape from their wooded, mountainside home in Redwood Valley, as wind-driven flames blackened block after block in the rural neighborhood below. It appears the family tried to drive away from their home of two years until their cars caught fire and they fled on foot.
Their parents, Jon and Sara Shepherd, were severely injured, as well, and remain hospitalized in San Francisco and Sacramento, respectively, said Ramos, Sara Shepherd’s sister.
Ramos said her niece, a Ukiah High School junior, was “one of those unicorn teenagers — just a joy to be around. Sunny, and still liked hanging out with her parents. “She didn’t have any of that teenage rebellion thing going on at all. Just pure light, and an amazing artist.”
Kressa Shepherd’s condition fluctuated substantially in the weeks since she and her mother were found in the driveway of their Sweetland Drive home with burns over 60 percent of their bodies, Ramos said. The teen had both legs amputated below the knee because of the severity of her wounds. She had pneumonia and also went into cardiac arrest at one point but was resuscitated, Ramos said, and a few days ago seemed to be gaining strength and appearing more lucid.
“They warned us from the very beginning that healing from burns like this is a roller coaster, and things can change day to day,” Ramos said by phone. “We knew she was very sick and it was a possibility we would lose her.
“I’ve never ever seen parents as broken as they are now.”
It remains unclear how much Sara and Jon Shepherd remember of the fire or what they know of their children’s fate.
Both parents are heavily medicated and communicating little, and family members have been advised not to volunteer information unless asked.
When her sister whispered something about Kressa to her mother on Sunday, “we told her the truth, which at that point was Kressa was across the street, being cared for,” Ramos said.
Hours later, family members were informed the girl no longer had any brain activity and her ventilator was shut off.
Kressa Shepherd is now among nine people killed by the 36,523-acre Redwood fire, one in a series of wildfires that erupted the night of Oct. 8 amid extreme, gusting winds that approached hurricane strength and spawned firestorms that ripped through tens of thousands of acres in Northern California.
The Redwood fire destroyed 545 structures, mostly homes, and is now ranked 16th on the list of most destructive fires in California history.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here