Nearly 70 miles north of the Sonoma County fires that destroyed million-dollar estates, threatened world-renowned wineries and captivated the nation’s attention, there is a little town where a nightmare is unfolding.
At least eight people in Redwood Valley were killed late Sunday by a wildfire that swept through the area so fast it engulfed moving cars. So far, just three of the victims have been identified, leaving the town’s 2,300 residents begging for information about friends and relatives who remain missing. The authorities have warned that the death toll may climb as they search the barren remains of dozens of homes among the 34,000 burned acres.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department formally identified three victims on Friday: Kai Logan Shepherd, 14, who was found a few feet from his badly burned mother and sister; and Roy and Irma Bowman, a couple married for 53 years. Firefighters told the Bowmans’ close friends that the couple were found embracing one another in their charred home.
At least 32 people died this week in wind-driven blazes across Northern California, making this the deadliest series of fires in state history. In tiny Redwood Valley, the event is leaving a heavy toll.
“Everybody knows everybody that was evacuated or was killed or who’s missing,” said Danilla Sands, who is running a Facebook page dedicated to news about the fire. “You don’t go into a store in this town without your hair done and your makeup on because you’re gonna run into 50 people you know. So when this happens, everyone is impacted.”
Those still unaccounted for include Margaret Stephenson, who is 86 and lives alone on Tomki Road, close to where the fire first raced into Redwood Valley. Friends said her home was destroyed and fear she is dead because a gate across her driveway remains closed.
In a somber thread on the Facebook group page, desperate residents ask for information about Stephenson and others who have not been heard from this week.
“I am trying to make sure my dear friend (basically big sister) is okay,” one man wrote.
“Has anyone seen Silver Wonnacott Anderson and family. She is my cousin, and her brother is also looking for her,” reads another post.
Redwood Valley is tucked along the Russian River about 10 miles north of Ukiah and is marked by a single exit off Highway 101. There’s a market, a gas station, the Redwood Valley Community Church and Vic’s bar. The fire department’s annual barbecue is the biggest event on the social calendar. Recently, a barber set up shop in a building next to Vic’s, and that was “big news,” Sands said.
Winding, narrow roads stretch out from the town’s “downtown.” There are wineries, ranches and modest family homes with chicken coops. There are rolling hills on all sides of Redwood Valley and a thick tree canopy provides shade to the houses.
The town’s fire chief and his mostly volunteer force tried to fight the blaze when it struck, but were quickly surrounded. He and others raced through town, trying to alert residents and saving whom they could. But as in other regions of Northern California devastated by this week’s blazes, some elderly residents either didn’t hear the calls or could not get out in time.
“If you’re elderly or you sleep hard, and this happened in the middle of the night, you wouldn’t know,” Sands said. “It would consume you.”
J.R. Pineda, a friend of Roy and Irma Bowman who worshiped with them at the Ukiah Assembly of God for many years, said a fire captain in their family told her the couple were discovered holding one another. That news didn’t surprise Pineda.
“You always saw them together, they were always holding hands and helping each other,” Pineda said. “That position they were in, they were praising God and worshiping him together as they went. I’m sure of it, that’s the kind of people they were.”
Roy and Irma Bowman met at a square dance in San Marcos in San Diego County. They married and Roy adopted Irma’s two sons from a previous marriage.
“My mom had a pretty tough life until she met my dad,” Gary Bowman, the couple’s son, said from his home in Medford, Ore. “It was another world for us when he came into our lives. I do not know what kind of lives we would have had without him. He was just … he saved us.”
Roy Bowman served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and retired from the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. He then worked for the federal Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Irma Bowman took care of the family, keeping them on a tight budget while raising the boys. She was a terrific baker and made the four-tier cake for her son’s wedding. Roy called her “Lollipop.”
They loved nature. Irma had both knees replaced and Roy had triple bypass surgery and a stroke. And yet they still went for walks every morning and remained active in their church. They drank a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a glass of water every morning and night, and they swore it kept them from getting sick.
The fires in Santa Rosa dominated the news, and Gary Bowman didn’t realize Redwood Valley had been hit until two days later. He had tried to persuade his parents to move to Medford, but they were in love with the rural community they called home for roughly 30 years.
“They loved being outside,” he said. “They helped their neighbors and their neighbors helped them.”
Two years ago, Jon and Sara Shepherd built their dream home at the end of a dirt driveway on a hillside two miles from the Bowmans’. They were proud of their new home and featured it in their Christmas card last year.
Around 1 a.m. on Monday, they called a family member to say a fire was heading their way and they were evacuating.
“We didn’t think they were in imminent danger,” said Mindi Ramos, Sara Shepherd’s sister. “We had no thought they’d get caught.”
Daybreak hit and the family still hadn’t heard from the Shepherds. The cellphone lines went out. The fire was spreading and blazes were raging throughout the region.
The family checked the hospitals and discovered Jon Shepherd had been admitted into Ukiah Valley Medical Center. A short time later, Sara and their 17-year-old daughter Kressa were brought in by emergency personnel.
It wasn’t until later that the Shepherds’ loved ones heard what happened.
A neighbor of the Shepherds named Paul Hanssen had survived the fire by hunkering down in a metal trailer parked against a pile of rocks. When the firestorm passed, he walked over to the Shepherd property, where he heard Sara and Kressa crying for help.
Sara told Hanssen that the family had tried to flee in a car, but that the car caught on fire and they bailed. Jon apparently ran down the hill toward the road, while Sara, Kressa and Kai ran back up toward the home.
The neighbor comforted Sara and Kressa and went to fetch them drinking water. About 30 feet away, he discovered Kai’s body.
Sara was eventually taken to the burn unit at UC Davis Medical Center. Kressa is next door at Shriners Hospitals for Children, and Jon is the Bothin Burn Center in San Francisco.
Kai Shepherd was “a sweet boy” who was gaining confidence as he entered his teen years. He played baseball and wrestled, and recently started playing saxophone in a band at Eagle Peak Middle School.
“He had this way to look into people’s hearts and know if they were good,” Ramos, his aunt, said. “He had an intrinsic sense of right and wrong.”
Kressa Shepherd’s legs were amputated below the knees and she has burns on 60 percent of her body. She is an artistic young woman, a “really amazing human” who loves to draw and is into Harry Potter novels, Ramos said.
“If anyone can bounce back from what she’s had to endure, it’s that girl,” her aunt said. “She’s going to flourish after this. We all know it.”