‘It’s just luck – kismet.’ Why some people lived and others died in California fires

California wildfires in pictures: 7 days of devastation and struggle

California wine country has been devastated by wildfires that began to scorch the area on October 8, 2017. At least 41 people have died.
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California wine country has been devastated by wildfires that began to scorch the area on October 8, 2017. At least 41 people have died.

A fallen tree branch, a miscalculation behind the wheel, a decision to leave in separate cars, a wrong turn.

These were among the simple things that made the difference between life and death for some of the 42 known victims of California’s deadly wildfires.

Two weeks after flames erupted across 335 square miles of Northern California, survivors are left to reckon with the magnitude of what has been lost – and the fickle nature of these fires, fueled by fierce and unpredictable winds.

Why this house, and not another? Why a 14-year-old boy? How could a 75-year-old woman survive all night in a swimming pool, surrounded by flames and buoyed by her loving husband, only to die in the morning?

Deaths were recorded in four counties: Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Yuba.

By the numbers, the elderly were over-represented on the roster of the dead, with 23 of the 33 identified victims older than age 65. Of those, 10 were 80 or older. Those who study natural disasters know that the most vulnerable residents – the elderly, the disabled, the poor – are disproportionately hurt when disaster strikes.

At least six couples died together, unable to escape. Other couples, like George and Lynne Powell of Santa Rosa, became separated as the wall of flames advanced.

One lived; one did not.

Still others died alone, returning to save animals or, in one case, trying to protect a new truck. The truck reportedly made it through; 57-year-old Michael Dornbach of San Pedro, the truck’s owner, did not.

As firefighters rapidly gained ground last week, and rain helped tamp down hot spots, family members and friends shared stories about their lost loved ones and the mystery of who made it, and who did not. Their stories are both terrifying and touching as they describe the choices their loved ones made in their final minutes.

Amid the smoke, a missed turn

The Powells, who met 33 years ago, were home together for the last time on Oct. 8 in their rural subdivision north of Santa Rosa. As the flames approached, they crafted their escape plan.

Lynne Powell, 72, left the home first, gathering up her beloved border collie, Jemma, and taking off in her car. George, 74, followed a few minutes later, after retrieving his three collies and bundling them into his vehicle.

The plan: Meet outside a shopping center off Mark West Springs Road, a few miles from their house.

Lynne never made it. George Powell later discovered that flames and heavy smoke blinded her as she drove. Along a road she had driven countless times, she somehow missed a sharp curve and her car plunged down a hillside.

“She perished trying to get out of her car, probably trying to save her dog, if I know my wife,” he said.

Powell said he unwittingly drove right past the spot where his wife’s car left the road. Her body was identified later by dental records.

“If I had known, I would have gone down there,” he said. “I don’t care if I would have died … I kind of feel guilty. I wish I had said, ‘You wait, we’ll go down together.’ But there’s no way to predict.”

Over and over, survivors described how the capriciousness of the fires and the thick smoke made familiar territory suddenly foreign.

In rural Yuba County, where driveways are long and many homes are set back from the road, 77-year-old Sandy Picciano died when she inadvertently drove her pickup through a barbed wire fence and into a horse paddock. The vehicle, which came to rest against a tree, was consumed in flames.

‘It’s just luck – kismet’

A mad dash down a driveway in Mendocino County resulted in the death of the fires’ youngest victim, 14-year-old Kai Shepherd.

Jon and Sara Shepherd and their two children, Kressa and Kai, had been living in their “dream home” at the end of a dirt driveway in Redwood Valley, a small community between Willets and Ukiah. Redwood Valley is not officially a city but rather a “census-designated place,” a collection of homes and businesses knitted together in a scenic valley.

For Kai, an eighth-grader who recently started playing the saxophone, a split-second decision about where to run proved fatal by a matter of feet.

As flames closed in, the family members made a run for the car. When the vehicle caught fire, the four became separated. Kai, his mother and 17-year-old sister ran up the driveway toward the house. Jon Shepherd ran down toward the street.

A neighbor responding to cries for help found Sara and Kressa, alive but badly burned. Kressa’s legs were later amputated below her knees. Jon Shepherd also was burned but alive.

Kai was found dead in the driveway about 30 feet from his mother and sister.

The teen was one of eight to die in this sparsely populated region of Mendocino County.

Sheriff Tom Allman knew the victims well. Kai’s grandfather was a retired AT&T worker who faithfully attended every fundraiser and barbecue, raising money for various causes that included the volunteer fire department, Allman said.

“He called me the night afterwards,” the sheriff said, his voice cracking. “He said Kai was a good kid.”

Even as a lawman, the arbitrary nature of the fires was hard for Allman to comprehend. The sheriff recently drove through the devastation in this county of about 88,000, shaking his head as he periodically came across a home that remained intact amid other people’s rubble.

“It's just luck – kismet,” he said.

Of the four hardest-hit counties, Sonoma County suffered the most casualties.

By Friday, the death toll in the county was 23, with 27 missing or unaccounted for.

At home with his falcon, a California original

As the dead were slowly identified, their backgrounds revealed the rich diversity in a county known largely for its winemaking and tourism.

Across the street from a hill leading to multimillion-dollar estates, the Journey’s End mobile home park was reduced to a smoldering, twisted pile of trailers. Linda Tunis, 69, was among the dead, a recent transplant from Florida who reportedly called her daughter from her burning home and said, simply, “I’m going to die,” before the line went dead, the Associated Press reported.

One Santa Rosa victim, 80-year-old Donna Halbur, had been a nun before leaving the order and marrying her husband, LeRoy. They died in the flames together. Lynne Powell had been a flutist for 17 years with the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.

Another Santa Rosa victim, Monte Kirven, 81, was a California original.

Described as a generous and funny outdoorsman, Kirven also was an accomplished painter, respected biologist and a defender of the peregrine falcon. Friends say his falcon likely also died in the fire.

“He was one of those rare colorful people,” said Geoff Monk, a close friend for nearly 40 years who studied peregrines with Kirven. “He was always entertaining to be around.”

Kirven had trained his falcons to circle 2,000 feet in the air as he walked through the fields below, flushing ducks into the sky. Then the falcons would dive, taking out their game as they plummeted toward earth. He hunted his own game as well – salmon, elk and deer – and “he would always share his bounty with others” at his dinner parties, Monk said.

That was how Kirven spent his final hours – hosting a dinner party in his home in the hills above Santa Rosa. A group of friends had gotten together to put a new roof on Kirven’s home this year and, in typical fashion, he celebrated the event with a party.

Around 10 p.m. on Oct. 8, Kirven, 81, finally kicked out his roofer and a neighbor. Hours later, the Tubbs Fire roared through, incinerating his home and many others on Linda Lane.

The Sonoma Sheriff’s Department would later tell Kirven’s family that his remains were found inside the home in the spot where his bed likely stood.

“If he sat up in bed, his entire house was likely engulfed,” said Monk. “It was on him so fast, he had no chance.”

‘Why didn’t she get away?’

Karen Aycock also died alone in her Santa Rosa home, her remains reportedly found in or near the bathroom. The 56-year-old woman and devoted animal-lover had lived for at least 30 years in the Coffey Park neighborhood, a subdivision devastated by the firestorm.

Aycock’s former husband, Larry Higgins of San Francisco, said he realized that Karen was undoubtedly gone when he saw a newspaper photograph of a twisted and melted 1967 Ford Mustang parked outside her destroyed home on Dogwood Drive.

“When I saw that car, I knew immediately she was going to be somewhere close,” said Higgins, 62. “She wouldn’t go anywhere without that car.”

The blue Mustang had been a gift to Aycock from her father on her 16th birthday, four decades earlier. Higgins said the two had married in 1980, hopped in the Mustang and driven from San Bruno to Sonoma County, living in a tent along the Russian River.

They later moved into Aycock’s mother’s home – the Dogwood Drive house that burned – where Aycock continued to live after her mother’s death in 2009, he said. The couple had split years earlier.

A cat-lover, Aycock probably took shelter in what she thought to be the safest place – the bathroom – to protect her animals, said Higgins.

It bothered him that she had not sought refuge in the old Doughboy above-ground pool in the backyard, which he said a Google search revealed had still been there at the time of the fire.

“Now I keep thinking, why didn’t she get away?” he said. “To hell with the cats! Save yourself!”

A love story to the end

A swimming pool in Sonoma County played a pivotal role in one of the fire’s most harrowing accounts.

Carmen Berriz, 75, and her husband Armando Berriz, 76, were vacationing with family in Sonoma County when they were forced to seek shelter in a swimming pool, hugging each other for safety as the flames and smoke crept closer. Carmen died in the morning after being held throughout the night by the man she’d married 55 years earlier.

Of all the stories of grief and heroism to emerge from the wildfires, few have resonated like the tale of Carmen and Armando Berriz.

“I think a big part of the story that grabbed people was that my mother died in my father’s arms,” said their son, Armando J. Berriz. “Within the horrific story of hell that they faced is this beautiful love story.”

The couple, from Apple Valley in San Bernardino County, had rented a vacation home for several days in Santa Rosa, taking their daughter, son-in-law and one of their granddaughters. When the fire erupted, they fled in separate cars, but Carmen and Armando abandoned their vehicle when it got stuck on a fallen tree. They scurried back to the rental house and jumped into the pool.

Hours later, Carmen Berriz stopped breathing. Family members said she had suffered from lung problems for some time.

As the smoke began clearing, Armando carried his wife over to the steps at the shallow end of the pool and then realized each of them had lost a shoe. He quietly asked if he could take hers so he could walk out to safety.

“Together they made the pair,” said their son, a lawyer in suburban Los Angeles. “He asked her permission to take it, she gave it to him.”

His father eventually reached safety and has been recuperating at a burn center in Southern California. The younger Berriz said his father is expected to fully recover.

‘No way he would have left her’

What is painfully apparent from the list of the dead is that age and mobility were probably the biggest determining factors for survival.

Charles and Sara Rippey are believed to be the oldest victims. Charles was 100, Sara was 98, and the couple had recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.

The Rippeys, who lived just off Atlas Peak Road northeast of Napa, met 89 years ago and were said by family members to be practically inseparable. When they died, separated by a few feet, Charles was apparently trying to rescue his wheelchair-bound wife but, hobbled himself and forced to use a walker, was overcome by smoke and flames.

Their son, Mike Rippey of Napa, said his mother suffered a stroke five years ago. The couple had a caregiver, Maria Sondoval, 23, who tried to help the Rippeys but was barely able to escape before the roof fell in.

“She was a real hero in the whole thing,” Mike Rippey said.

Rippey had been in London when the fire broke out but, with the help of his brother, Chuck Rippey of Newcastle, has been able to piece together the sequence of events.

He said Sondoval was able to pull Sara Rippey out of bed and into her wheelchair. But because of the wheelchair, the only viable escape route was through a garage, and the power outage made it impossible to open the garage door.

“There was nowhere to go with that wheelchair,” Mike Rippey said. “No matter what happened, my mother was doomed.”

As the caregiver struggled with Sara Rippey, she heard Charles Rippey, who was nicknamed “Peach,” calling for Sara from a hallway outside the bedroom. When Sondoval called back for him, there was no response. He was found later in the hall next to his walker.

“He had managed to make it halfway from his room to my mother’s room,” Mike Rippey said.

If he had been able to reach her, the son said, “he would have just stayed in the room with her.”

In the midst of disaster, their love story continued.

“There’s no way he would have left her,” Mike Rippey said.

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom