‘A tremendous heart’ - woman remembers aunt lost in fires
Dozens of people have died in the deadliest week of wildfires in California history. The victims include couple who had been married for decades, a 14-year-old boy whose parents and older sister were severely burned, and a woman who died in her husband’s arms as they sought refuge in a backyard swimming pool.
A look at some of those who were killed in the blazes:
‘A TREMENDOUS HEART’
Karen Aycock was an animal lover to the core who had at least four cats in her home at any given time.
Outside her home, she might be looking after more than two dozen feral cats, who she would make sure were spayed and neutered.
“She was the official cat lady, but she was doing it for a good reason,” said her niece Victoria Rilling. “She was helping control the pet population.”
Aycock, 54, died in her Santa Rosa home that had once belonged to her mother. Rilling grew up in the home with her mother and Aycock, and remembers her aunt as a kindhearted woman who was as handy as they come.
“She taught me how to change oil, work on (an old Mustang), change the air filter,” Rilling recalled. “She taught me how to hold a hammer properly.”
Aycock worked in construction her whole life, largely roofing, Rilling said.” She had a tremendous heart and tons of love,” Rilling said. “And her family loved her very much.”
A FATHER’S LOVE
Daniel Southard, 71, a retired fitness trainer and high school football coach, sent a text message to his son Derek a little after midnight to ask if he was having a good time at a wedding in Monterey.
The two were close — Derek’s mother died when he was 2 years old, his father raised him on his own — and kept close tabs on each other.
When Derek woke up to news that the wildfires tore through Santa Rosa about an hour after his father texted, he had a feeling his dad and the family dog, Sadie, didn’t escape the flames.
“I know he has trouble sleeping. I’m thinking he took his sleeping pill after texting me and went to bed,” Derek said.
When he returned to Santa Rosa, Derek spent days searching for his father in evacuation shelters. He held out hopes his father was alive. But by Saturday, authorities who searched the family home confirmed what Derek had suspected: Daniel’s body was found in his bedroom.
“My neighbor said the fire came so fast they barely made it out,” Derek said. “If he had made it out, the first thing he would have done was to get a hold of me.”
“He loved me a lot,” Derek said.
He said his father loved fitness and football, and he pursued his passions by working as a personal trainer and co-owner of a Gold’s Gym in downtown Santa Rosa. He also worked as the assistant football coach at Derek’s high school.
“He was a kind-hearted man; very generous,” the son said. “He didn’t always have much. But what he had he’d give to you if he thought you needed more.”
VISITING AREA THAT REFUELED HIS ENERGY
Michael Dornbach, 57, a retired longshoreman from Southern California, was in the area to find a small piece of land where he could put a cabin and go to fish, garden and be outdoors.
He was visiting relatives at their mountain home outside Calistoga when the fire broke out last week.
His 18-year-old nephew and others pleaded with him to evacuate, but he was looking for his keys and didn’t want to leave without his new pickup truck, said his sister, Laura Dornbach, who lives in Calistoga.
Others evacuated. His body was found the next day in the driveway.
“It has devastated us,” she said. “He was beautiful. He was strong and Italian and stubborn.”
His mother, Maria Triliegi, said he had saved up money and was meeting with a real estate agent to find a piece of land in the surrounding Napa region where he could move.
“He’d go up there to fuel his energy,” Laura Dornbach said. “That was one of his favorite places in the world. He loved the country. He loved the outdoors.”
Dornbach lived in a little house next door to his mother’s home in San Pedro, California, and he would come to her house every day to have coffee.
“He had such a big heart,” his mother said. He would bring clothes and food to homeless people, and often asked her over Thanksgiving to save a dish or two so he could bring it to others.
He fished on the Pacific Ocean, and he loved looking at the mountains and the stars a night, his sister said.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
Arthur Grant, 95, and Suiko Grant, 75, and their small dog took refuge in the wine cellar of their Santa Rosa home for 45 years.
They died there on Monday on property filled with fruit trees and vineyards, their daughter Trina Grant told the San Francisco Chronicle.
She says her father met her mother in Honolulu while working as a pilot for Pan American World Airways. “It was a true love-at-first-sight story,” she says. “He found the most beautiful gal in the world to marry.”
Arthur grew up as one of 13 kids on a dairy farm in Point Arena. He joined the U.S. Navy during World War II and trained as a fighter pilot. But the war ended before he flew in combat. He retired as a Navy lieutenant. He flew with Pan Am for 25 years before retiring as a captain.
She was born in China and raised in Sapporo, Japan. She went to work for a Japanese company in Hawaii after graduating from Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. That’s where she met the pilot who was dating her roommate at the time.
VERY GENEROUS OF SPIRIT
LeRoy and Donna Halbur, both 80, had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and for years Leroy delivered food for the needy three times a week.
They had no chance to flee a wildfire that destroyed their Santa Rosa home early Monday, said their eldest son, Tim Halbur.
“The winds came up pretty quickly. It was all countryside behind them,” Tim Halbur said. “My mom was found in the car in the garage. My dad was somewhere on the driveway. He probably had gotten her into the car, and he went outside to check on conditions.”
Tim Halbur said his parents were devoted to community, friends and family. An avid world traveler, LeRoy Halbur was an usher at Resurrection Catholic Church in Santa Rosa. He volunteered with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County, delivering meals right up to the week before the fires.
Donna Halbur wrote children’s books and was a former elementary school teacher.
“What I want you to know is that they were very generous of spirit, and they carried that spirit to the community,” their son said.
DOING GOOD BY OTHERS
Roy Howard Bowman, 87, and his wife, Irma Elsie Bowman, 88, lived a life quietly doing good for others.
The Mendocino County couple provided money to help launch a Spanish-speaking ministry at the Assembly of God church in Ukiah, recalled Sylvia McGuire Nickelson, who met the Bowmans at church.
“They both were beautiful, inside and out,” Nickelson told the San Francisco Chronicle . “I just loved them.”
“Anybody who needed a second chance, the Bowmans were their advocate,” said Felice Lechuga-Armadillo, who with her siblings would host the Bowmans for Sunday dinners. “Anyone who needed help, they stepped forward — but quietly.”
The couple was found in the fire-ravaged remnants of their home in the remote Redwood Valley, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Santa Rosa, on Monday.
Roy Bowman was a U.S. Navy veteran and former federal employee. Irma Bowman loved to bake and “would tell us to speak well of other people,” said Lechuga-Armadillo.
Roy Bowman had a stroke earlier this year. Irma Bowman told Lechuga-Armadillo’s mother that if he had another, she wanted to have one as well — “because she didn’t want to be on this Earth without him,” Lechuga-Armadillo said.
‘THE HORSE LADY’
Valerie Lynn Evans had a fierce love of animals.
Evans, 75, kept horses, goats, dogs, a mule and a steer at her Santa Rosa home. She’d sometimes lead the mule down the street, allowing folks to feed it, said her longtime neighbor, Tracy Long.
“We knew her as the horse lady,” Long told the San Francisco Chronicle.
As flames approached their homes late Sunday, Brian Strehlow, a neighbor across the street, offered to help.
“She said, ‘We got this,’” Strehlow said.
Evans died while trying to save her dogs.
Evans’ neighbors said they believed that her husband, son and a daughter-in-law were able to escape, but that they hadn’t been able to reach them since the fire.
Evans kept a large collection of books on horses. Long, whose home was damaged by fire, said she occasionally sees pages from Evans’ library blowing along the street.
TIMID AND GIGGLY
At 14, Kai Shepherd was among the youngest victims of the wildfires.
After flames swept over a mountain, the Shepherds had tried to drive down to escape. Their neighbor Paul Hanssen found their two charred vehicles blocking the road, doors still ajar from when they had apparently abandoned them and fled on foot.
Hanssen found the mother, Sara Shepherd, and her 17-year-old daughter, Kressa, lying on the ground, more than half their bodies burned. Kai Shepherd was further down the mountain and did not survive.
First responders found Kai’s father, Jon Shepherd, separately, on the mountain. He was also badly burned but alive. Kai Shepherd’s parents and sister are being treated at burn centers.
His sister, Kressa Shepherd, a Ukiah High School junior, had to have both legs amputated beneath her knees.
Family friend Irma Muniz remembers Kai Shepherd was timid and giggly after she met him last year while shooting a Christmas card photo of the family posing in the woods of Redwood Valley, a community of about 1,800 roughly 70 miles (113 kilometers) north in Mendocino County
‘SHE WAS MY LIFE’
George Powell woke to a wall of fire already bearing down on his Santa Rosa home and immediately yelled to his 72-year-old wife, Lynne Anderson Powell: “Get out!”
Lynne Powell grabbed her border collie, Jemma, which always slept next to her, a laptop and asked for the best way to get off their mountain before jumping in her car.
George Powell left 15 minutes later after fetching his three dogs. George Powell now realizes when he raced down the mountain he drove past his wife’s car that had gone off the road and into a ravine in the heavy smoke.
After searching for her all night and the next day, a detective called to tell him a body burned beyond recognition was found steps from her car. Inside was a dog also burned to death.
“If I had known, I would have gone down there with her, even if it meant I would have died with her,” George Powell, 74, said. “I don’t know how I’m going to cope. She was my life.” He repeated: “She was my life.”
The couple had been married for 33 years. He was a photojournalist and she was a professional flutist, spending much of her career playing for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, which operated until 2011.
The two met while she was on vacation in Los Angeles, where George Powell freelanced for newspapers. He said it was “love at first sight” and he moved to New Mexico to be with her. After they retired, they settled in northern California so his wife could take care of her aging parents.
The two shared a love of border collies and entered in agility runs with their dogs. She was an avid quilter. The fire took everything, including her quilts and his life’s photo archive.
Lynne Powell did not want a memorial service or obituary. But George Powell said he may hold a special lunch with friends to celebrate her life.
“I don’t think I ever felt unloved or uncared for any second of my life with her,” he said.
TOGETHER IN LIFE AND DEATH
Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife, Sara, 98, are the oldest victims of the wine country wildfires identified so far.
Their bodies were found by one of their sons who had made his way past security and found the home in Napa where they had lived for 35 years completely gone. Only two blackened metal chairs, a porcelain tea set of white and soft washes of blue and other small remnants remained to testify to the couple’s long life together.
Charles Rippey — who was known by his nickname “Peach” since he was a toddler — appeared to be heading to the room of his wife, who had had a stroke in recent years.
Mike Rippey said his father would have never left his mother. The couple met in grade school and recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary with their five children.
“Those of us in the family always would, you know, wonder what would happen if one of them died and the other one was still left because we knew that, you know, there’s no way they would ever be happy whoever was the last one and so they went together,” Rippey, 71, said as he stood among the charred ruins of their home.
The couple attended the University of Wisconsin and married in 1942 before Charles Rippey served as a U.S. Army engineer in World War II. He then became an executive with the Firestone tire company.
DEDICATED TO HELPING OTHERS
Christina Hanson, 27, used a wheelchair and spent her life dedicated to helping others despite her own hardships, her family said.
Kelsi Mannhalter had posted on social media asking people to search for her cousin after the fire Monday ravaged Santa Rosa where Hanson lived.
Mannhalter later confirmed on Facebook that Hanson did not survive when the flames consumed her home.
“Just surreal,” Mannhalter posted. “I love you so much and am going to miss you sweet cousin. I can’t say it enough.”
Her father was found collapsed on the street in front of his home with third-degree burns and was taken to a hospital in San Francisco. Hanson had tried unsuccessfully to reach him as flames surrounded her apartment around 1:30 a.m. Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Hanson was born with a spinal defect and lost her mother at 9 to lupus.
Still, her focus was always on others, her stepmother, Jennifer Watson, told the newspaper, describing her as “a very happy, social and positive person.”
Hanson volunteered two days a week at an Alzheimer’s residential care facility in Santa Rosa, where she would entertain residents.
She also taught herself sign language and interpreted for the hearing impaired.
“She loved helping people and loved her family,” said Watson, who was with her stepdaughter the day before she died.
Her family wrote in an online obituary that Hanson “was granted her angel wings.”
DIED IN HER HUSBAND’S ARMS
In the 55 years they were married, Carmen Caldentey Berriz had spent countless hours in her husband Armando’s arms.
In his arms was where the 75-year-old took her last breath on Monday, as he held her afloat in a swimming pool as walls of fire burned around them, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Carmen had known Armando was the one since she was 12, and the two dated for years before marrying in 1962. By the time Carmen turned 75, their family had grown to include two daughters, a son, their children’s spouses and seven grandchildren.
The Berrizes were three days into a vacation at a Santa Rosa rental house with family when son-in-law Luis Ocon woke early Monday morning and saw the fire begin to overtake the neighborhood.
They fled to their cars.
Luis, Monica Ocon, and their daughter made it through the thick smoke and flames and pulled over, watching for Carmen and Armando’s car to emerge behind them. It never came.
Armando Berriz’s car had gotten stuck on a fallen tree. He told his wife they had to run back to the house to take shelter in the backyard pool.
As flames melted the chaise lounges a few feet away, Carmen clung to Armando, who kept them both afloat by hanging onto the brick sides of the pool.
Armando Berriz held on for hours, even as the brick burned his hands, even as his wife stopped breathing. He let go only after the flames had burned out, laying Carmen on the steps of the pool with her arms carefully crossed over her chest.
He walked 2 miles to find firefighters.
“Everything they did was as a team,” daughter Monica Ocon said. “They had this bond and this strength that literally lasted a lifetime.”
ONE LAST PHONE CALL
Linda Tunis moved from Florida to the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa to be closer to her family. When the northern California wildfires quickly overtook the park, the 69-year-old woman phoned her daughter.
She was trapped, she told her daughter, Jessica Tunis. She was surrounded by fire, and going to die.
Jessica Tunis screamed at her mom to run to safety, to flee the burning home.
“I was telling her I love her when the phone died,” Jessica Tunis told the San Francisco Chronicle.
After three days of hope and dread, Jessica’s brother Robert Tunis found his mother’s remains in the debris where her house once stood.
Linda Tunis was spunky and sweet, Jessica Tunis said Wednesday. She was also fiercely independent, an attitude that wasn’t dampened by her health problems. She had failing memory because of a stroke, and had lost the sight in one of her eyes because of high blood pressure.
She loved bingo and the beach, choosing to move California mostly because it brought her nearer to her close-knit family, Jessica Tunis said.
“My mother’s remains have been found at her home at Journey’s End. May she rest in peace, my sweet Momma,” Jessica Tunis posted on Facebook earlier this week.