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Burned in North Bay wildfires, survivors continue painful healing

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Read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage here

After months of hospitalization for severe burns suffered during the Redwood Valley wildfire in Mendocino County a year ago, Sara Shepherd was understandably eager to rejoin her husband, Jon.

But there was something else. February was the month in which both of their teenage children — the youngest who lost their lives as a result of the fires — had been born. It was thus February this year when the couple wanted to be home to honor their children’s short lives at a community memorial service, even if “it was a little bit of a push to get everything and everyone ready,” said Mindi Ramos, Sara Shepherd’s sister and family spokeswoman.

The Shepherds were among the most seriously injured survivors of the unprecedented wildfires that exploded across six Northern California counties in October 2017, taking the lives of 44 people, including 24 in Sonoma County and eight in the rural Mendocino community of Redwood Valley.

The Shepherds, now living in Ukiah, face many of the same challenges shared by an unknown number of people who were burned or otherwise hurt when flames torched parts of the region last fall. It’s unclear how many residents experienced similar injuries or smoke inhalation, a serious injury suffered by many who endured the flames.

No comprehensive survey of fire-related injuries or hospitalizations has been compiled. And evacuations and closures of two major north Santa Rosa hospitals — Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente — during the historic Tubbs fire complicate efforts to track those patients.

Many of those with the most severe physical wounds, like the Shepherds, also mourn lives lost.

Kai Logan Shepherd, 14, died as he and his family tried to flee the flames that trapped them on Oct. 8, 2017, near their hillside home.

Kressa Jean Shepherd, 17, died of her injuries three weeks later at Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento. The parents recovery is inescapably intertwined with grieving the unbearable loss of their children, Ramos said.

There’s Mike Hanson, 56, of Santa Rosa, whose 27-year-old daughter, Christina Hanson, died when the fire blasted across their property off Wikiup Bridge Way and Mark West Springs Road. Christina Hanson used a wheelchair and likely was hampered in her escape from the apartment she occupied near her father’s house.

Hanson, a retired electrical contractor and glassblower, suffered second- and third-degree burns over as much as half of his body and was found unconscious on the road by a neighbor once the fire swept through. He was hospitalized until February, saying then he expected to rehabilitate for another year. He has kept a low-profile since, but has mostly recovered, a friend said last week.

Similarly, Helen Hung, 77, found herself trapped as the fire surrounded the Fountaingrove home she shared with her elderly husband. Tak-fu Hung, 101, made it only as far as the front door of their burning house before telling his wife to go on alone — so evident were their poor odds.

Unable to open their garage door, they would have to escape on foot. He did not think he would make it, family members said later, and he died in the fire.

Helen Hung, his wife of 46 years, briefly found refuge behind a low stone wall in the front yard, then lay in a neighbor’s driveway for hours until help arrived, the fire burning over and all around her for part of that time.

Read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage here

She suffered burns on her arms, hands, legs and hips, and required hospitalization in San Jose for about a month before being moved to skilled nursing, Tak-fu Hung’s daughter, Annie Yen O’Hara, said.

She remains fragile a year later, O’Hara said, but Hung is living independently in an apartment and keeping herself busy.

“It’s still a very difficult time,” O’Hara said last week.

Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, the regional trauma center, remained open during the October fires.

More than 300 emergency room patients turned up last Oct. 8 and 9. The total for that entire week was 1,200, compared with 700 in an average week, St. Joseph Health spokeswoman Vanessa DeGier said.

Smoke inhalation and respiratory complaints were the most common, with 139 total cases, 15 percent of which required hospital admission, DeGier said.

About 300 other emergency room cases were attributed primarily to the fires, involving burns but also cuts, broken bones and head injuries related to evacuation and escape, she said.

Most fire victims were treated in the emergency room, but 14 traumatic burn cases required hospitalization. Six people were transferred to burn centers outside the county, including UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, Bothin Burn Center at St. Francis Memorial in San Francisco, and Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.

Others, like Greg and Christina Wilson, who survived the fire in the swimming pool as flames burned their Michele Way Estates home above Mark West Springs Road, went directly from Sutter hospital to a sister medical center in Novato and then to UC San Francisco Medical Center.

They spent about 10 days in intensive care with severe smoke inhalation and some burns. Both are still recovering from lung damage, though they have returned to work and are trying to resume their normal daily life.

Their friends and neighbors, Blaine and Rayna Westfall, also got trapped in the neighborhood and weathered the fire facedown in a meadow down the hill from their house. They were treated at Healdsburg Hospital and have since recovered.

The Shepherds had been in two cars trying to escape the fire as it came up the mountain toward their home of two years, but were forced to flee on foot when the vehicles caught fire. The flames quickly caught up with them again.

Sara Shepherd, 41, was burned from her neck to her ankles, covering about 60 percent of her body, Ramos said. She was hospitalized for three months at UC Davis and later had to relearn to walk using damaged limbs with tight muscles and scarred skin. She recently started riding a bike, “a big accomplishment,” her sister said.

Increased balance and stability also have allowed her to participate adaptively in gentle yoga and Zumba dance, something her daughter once enjoyed. She wears whole-body compression garments to help with healing and is regaining use of her hands and fingers through daily chores like food preparation.

“I think there’s still a fair amount of shock, at least on my sister’s end of things,” said Ramos, also a Ukiah resident. “And I think that they’re driven a lot by living in honor of their children.”

Sara Shepherd experienced extreme smoke inhalation, too, and still has some cognitive healing ahead, Ramos said.

After weeks at Bothin Burn Center, Jon Shepherd, 45, joined his wife last year at UC Davis. He was discharged in early December, a month ahead of her.

Both required two months of outpatient therapy in Sacramento, though they were able to be in Mendocino County for the Feb. 25 memorial at Ukiah High School honoring their deceased children.

“I think they really feel cradled by the community here,” Ramos said.

Then they moved in with Sara Shepherd’s parents in Redwood Valley for four months, before recovering sufficiently to live on their own in Ukiah.

A carpenter and mechanic who built the family home lost in the fire, Jon Shepherd lost the tips of several burned fingers after skin grafts failed. He pushes through his pain to tinker and build things, and took pride in preparing and insulating a van that he and his wife took to Burning Man, an annual weeklong event in the Nevada desert dedicated to self-expression, six weeks ago. It was the couple’s third time to the Black Rock Desert gathering and was supposed to be the first time for their daughter, who would have turned 18 earlier this year.

The event proved cathartic, Ramos said, allowing the Shepherds another opportunity to ritualize their loss at the Burning Man temple built each year as a memorial to the dead and then burned to the ground, filled with mementos and messages.

The couple has not decided what to do with their property in Redwood Valley, now considered sacred ground.

The Shepherds also participated in commemorative events, including a candlelight vigil Sunday in Lions Park where a plaque naming all eight Redwood Valley residents who died was dedicated.

Sara Shepherd also has been working through her grief artistically, creating a personal mosaic put on display Saturday along with the last drawing created by her daughter, a talented artist, at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits.

She also has been working with other fire survivors on a mosaic mural to be unveiled Oct. 12 in Redwood Valley. Some of the materials were collected from what was left of people’s homes.

“My sister, she’s always been a strong person,” Ramos said. “But I am just astounded at what she already has accomplished, just in terms of making herself healthy and being independent.”

The couple, she said, “are a great comfort to each other. That’s something they have.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.