MENDOCINO COUNTY, Calif. (AP) — When flames swept over the mountain like a “nuclear blast,” Paul Hanssen ran from his burning home, a water-soaked towel around his head and dog by his side, and took shelter in a trailer. He waited nervously for two long hours as winds howled and embers flew by.
When the fire passed, he emerged, parched with thirst. He went to a nearby spring for water and screamed to see if anyone else was around.
No one answered.
Hanssen hurried toward his neighbors’ house, where he found Sara Shepherd and her 17-year-old daughter, Kressa, lying on the ground, more than half their bodies burned. He called 911 and took water from a hot water heater left in the charred remnants of the family’s home, squeezing drops into their mouths with the towel from his head.
“It was the most gut-wrenching, heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “They were so thirsty, and I knew how they felt because I just went through that thirst.”
Farther down the mountain, Hanssen found Shepherd’s 14-year-old son, Kai. The eighth-grader at Eagle Peak Middle School, who loved baseball and wrestling, did not survive.
First responders found Kai’s father, Jon Shepherd, separately, on the mountain. He was also badly burned but alive.
The wildfires that started late Sunday and swept across a wide area north of San Francisco are the deadliest and most destructive the state has ever seen. While much of the devastation is in Sonoma and Napa counties, the heart of California’s wine country, fire also wiped out a swath of Redwood Valley, a community of about 1,800 roughly 70 miles (113 kilometers) north in Mendocino County.
Sara, 40, and Jon Shepherd, 44, finished building their dream home there two years ago on a long, winding road up a mountain where they could garden and raise their two children.
Now, the house is gone, their son is dead and the couple and their daughter are hospitalized in three different Northern California burn centers.
“Our minds are swirling,” said Mindi Ramos, Sara’s sister. “We’ve lost our nephew. Everyone is in critical care right now. We don’t know if Sara or Jon — we don’t know what they remember. We don’t know if they know that Kai is gone.”
Ramos, who grew up in the tight-knit community, said her family got a call from the Shepherds around 1 a.m. Monday to let them know they were evacuating. Time passed and when they didn’t hear more, Ramos’ parents grew nervous and checked the hospital in the nearby town of Ukiah.
It was then, Ramos said, that they learned their son-in-law had been brought in for burns. They later found out about the other family members.
Hanssen, a 46-year-old construction worker and sculptor, said he spoke with Jon Shepherd by phone shortly after they got a call to evacuate as flames lapped on the ridge across the valley. Shepherd said he was leaving with his wife and children. Hanssen decided to stay, hoping to save his home.
But the fire sped across the mountain too quickly, pushed by fierce winds. Within a half-hour, the windows blew in and everything inside Hanssen’s home was on fire.
“It was like a nuclear blast wave that hit,” he said. “The embers were insane. They penetrated everything and set everything on fire.”
Hanssen retreated to the trailer and shut himself in with his dog. At one point, he stepped out and grabbed a piece of hose that held some trapped water, then soaked himself and resumed hiding.
When the winds died down, Hanssen came out. Everything had burned. Water tanks had melted.
The only things left were the trailer that sheltered him and a backhoe.
“I really should be dead right now, and the only reason I lived was an act of God, or something,” he said.
The Shepherds had tried to drive down the mountain to escape the fire. Their two charred vehicles were blocking the road, doors still ajar from when they apparently abandoned them and fled on foot, Hanssen said.
Irma Muniz, Sara Shepherd’s childhood friend who lives in Redwood Valley, evacuated with her family when a neighbor knocked on her door early Monday and told them to get out. Her house burned to the ground.
The 40-year-old photographer, who is 38 weeks pregnant with her third child, is now staying in a trailer on a friend’s property.
She remembers driving up to the Shepherds’ home last year to take photos of the family for a Christmas card. It was the first time she had met the children and remembers how Kai was timid, giggling as she had the family pose in the woods.
Now, the surviving Shepherds face a lengthy road to recovery. Kressa Shepherd, a Ukiah High School junior and talented artist, had both legs amputated beneath her knees, Ramos said.
Relatives are raising money to cover medical expenses and to prepare to eventually bring the family to live with Sara Shepherd’s parents in Redwood Valley. Neighbors have offered to help retrofit the house to make it wheelchair accessible, Ramos said.
She said the Shepherds could not get fire insurance for their home due to its remote location.
Hanssen is staying with a friend in Pacifica, near San Francisco, thankful he survived and that his two children weren’t with him at the time.
“I lost everything that didn’t matter and I kept everything that did,” he said of his family. “I’m not going to go back up on the mountain anytime soon.”