Sara Shepherd leaned forward in her chair — jagged scars running down her neck, a special undergarment cloaking the burns covering her body — taking a deep breath to begin telling her story, a story partially drawn from her own painful memories — the rest filled in by others.
She remembered neighbors knocking on the door in the middle of the night warning of fire on the mountain. And just like that the flames were there, sprinting on a blistering wind toward the hilltop dream home she’d moved into two months earlier with her husband Jon and their children Kressa and Kai. Just down the hill, her hometown of Redwood Valley in Mendocino County was already going up in flames.
Her memories recalled the family’s desperate car ride down the hill — meeting a wall of flames so high they had to abandon the car and run for it.
“Fire at our heels and just running,” Shepherd said, as if gazing back into the flames. “I had to tell the children just keep running … keep running.”
She remembers her husband’s words as the flames overtook them: “Cover your faces, this is it.”
When Sara and Jon woke three months later from medically-induced comas — Sara burned over 60 percent of her body, John over 50 percent — she discovered the greatest pain was not of the flesh.
She learned that 14-year-old Kai, the strong and brave boy she called her young warrior, perished in the flames near the family driveway — appearing to draw a final breath before running into the inferno.
Kressa, 17, an artist who Sara said was in the prime of her life, was burned so badly both legs had to be amputated. For months she waged a tenacious battle for life in the hospital before finally surrendering. The flames of Oct. 8, 2017 had claimed nine people in Redwood Valley with Sara Shepherd’s children among them.
“I think I haven’t even touched the edges of any grief,” Shepherd said, dabbing at her eyes. “I’m still in a fog.”
In the time since Sara woke from her coma, life has come in baby steps. The couple bought a house in nearby Ukiah — a 20-minute drive from the wooded rural town where she grew up. As part of her physical therapy she turned to healing through movement — taking dance classes and Zumba. She dipped her toe back into public life, taking part in workshops alongside other fire victims to craft art from the remains of their homes. She and Jon took in a San Francisco Giants game.
They’ve started to rebuild — the things that can be rebuilt.
“There’s never going to be normal. Nothing will ever be the same without those children — without Kressa and Kai” she said gazing off toward the Ukiah morning filling the living room window. “But we’re putting one foot in front of the other, day by day, moment by moment and trying to honor their legacies.”
Sara and Jon visited the hill of their former homestead — the place where life unraveled in the dark forces of a single night. She said it’s a good “grieving spot,” to honor Kai at the ground where he fell.
In her recovery, she’s constantly felt propped-up by the close-knit community that has offered its full support. Her family is nearby.
“I’ve never known anyone stronger,” said Sara’s sister Mindi Ramos, her voice giving way to emotion. “For her to just be standing on two feet after losing her children and the physical pain she went through herself — it’s a miracle.”
This week, the community will dedicate a mosaic mural on the side of the Grange building in Redwood Valley to the nine lost in the fire — including Kressa and Kai. Sara took part in the mural’s creation.
Along the verdant roads of Tomki, East and West Roads, which slice through Redwood Valley, newly built homes have risen from the scars of burned-out lots. Just as many "For Sale" signs tell of families who will not rebuild.
Sara counts herself among those will not come back to Redwood Valley. There is too much there. And too little.
“I feel like there’s some families that are so resilient and will make Mendocino County their home forever,” she said in reference to Redwood Valley. “Although I can’t build a home, it will always be my home in my heart.”