He had adorable, deep dimples and a shy demeanor that belied strong opinions and an inner focus that came into play when it mattered.
At 14, Kai Logan Shepherd was just beginning to grow into manhood and explore new forms of self-expression through sports and music. He had a way of reading people’s hearts and could intuit who was worth his time and who wasn’t, family members said.
His older sister, a sunny and bright high school junior, had always displayed a gift for drawing and had a creative sense that fostered dreams she might some day design new characters for Disney. Kressa Jean Shepherd was both eager to pursue her artistic future and content to stay in the midst of family — a snuggly 17-year-old who would as soon hang out with her parents as her friends.
Both were victims of a raging wildfire that trapped them and their parents on their wooded hillside above Redwood Valley in central Mendocino County.
Kai Shepherd, an eighth-grader at nearby Eagle Creek Middle School, died in the flames that drove his family to abandon their burning vehicles halfway down the hill after the hungry Oct. 8 blaze forced them from their Sweetwater Road home.
Their desperate flight on foot along the private dirt road where they had built their own house left the other three gravely injured.
Kressa Shepherd died three weeks later at Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento. She already had lost both legs and endured repeated surgeries when she died Oct. 29 from burns over more than half her body.
Their parents are still in the midst of long-term recovery, though Jon Shepherd, 45, has now joined his wife, Sara Shepherd, in Sacramento after his release from St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco in the early part of December.
He recalls in excruciating detail the hourslong ordeal that resulted in a collapse into unconsciousness at one point, then finding his son’s burned body, then hiking several miles downhill in search of help despite third-degree burns, his sister, Lisa Shepherd, of Willits said. Jon Shepherd’s wife and daughter were found incapacitated about 100 feet away from where Kai had sought refuge against an embankment and was overcome, she said.
All planning for the future has stopped. A devastating hole has been left in a tightly knit, extended family on both sides, many of whom live in inland Mendocino County where adult siblings, cousins and grandparents shared everyday life.
All are keenly aware of what they will miss: Kai’s upcoming wrestling season, his budding relationship with the saxophone, his faithful cheering for his beloved San Francisco Giants.
His parents, aunts and uncles were delighted by a kid “still very much trying on the different personalities, as you do at that age,” said Mindi Ramos, Sara Shepherd’s sister.
And Kressa, never realizing the artistic potential first revealed in her early years of Waldorf education. She was still plotting her route from high school to junior college and college, still “Sissy” to a brother who would soon surpass her in height.
Family was extremely important to both kids, Ramos said, “and I don’t think you can say that about every teenager.”
The Press Democrat remembers the 40 lives lost in the North Bay fires. Click here for more of the stories.