3 Family Members Perish in California Wildfire, and Surviving Son Begs Others to Heed Evacuation

August 29, 2020 Updated: August 29, 2020

A 70-year-old woman, her partner, and his son all lost their lives when a California wildfire devastated their property in Napa County. On Aug. 25, the woman’s grieving son shared his immeasurable loss while imploring others to pay heed to evacuation orders in their area.

The family, Mary Hintemeyer, Leo McDermott, and Leo’s son Tom, perished in the blazing Hennessey Fire, part of the spreading LNU Lightning Complex wildfires, which engulfed their land near Lake Berryessa. The blaze trapped the three family members inside a makeshift underground fire shelter in which they had sought refuge.

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Local residents sit next to a vineyard as they watch the LNU Lightning Complex fire burning in the nearby hills of Healdsburg, Calif., on Aug. 20, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Heartbroken son Robert McNeal told KNTV that his mother had driven out to the roadblock near her home before changing her mind and returning home, where McDermott was confined to his wheelchair. Hintemeyer and McNeal were texting back and forth, the mom keeping her son updated on her situation and assuaging his fears for her safety.

She even texted McNeal a photo of the fire in the distance before telling him that she may seek refuge in their root cellar, dug into the hillside, with her partner and his son. Then suddenly, she ceased replying to McNeal’s messages.

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The banks around Lake Berryessa in Napa, Calif., smolder on Aug. 18, 2020 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Lake Berryessa in Napa County, California (Screenshot/Google Maps)

A search-and-rescue team later found the family’s remains inside the shelter, which had proven no match for the ferocity of the blaze.

“They called the planes off,” said McNeal. “The next thing you know, it erupted. Nobody had a chance.”

Through tears, the grieving son revealed that his mother’s greatest fear had been burning. “She didn’t even want to be cremated. [But] that’s how things ended up,” he said.

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Pacific Gas and Electric firefighters extinguish spot fires as the LNU Lightning Complex fire hits Fairfield, Calif., on Aug. 19, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

McNeal described his mother as his best friend and one of the most caring people he had ever met, adding, “I hope I can get half of that in myself.” The only memento that McNeal was able to salvage from his mother’s scorched property was a small brown porcelain trinket in the shape of a treasure chest.

The LNU Lightning Complex wildfires started in the early hours of Aug. 17, 2020, according to Cal Fire. The flames were ignited by lightning strikes in Napa and Sonoma counties, and spread quickly.

To date, fires have engulfed 369,000 acres of land and crossed into five California counties. Napa County and Lake County’s Hennessey Fire, the blaze where McNeal’s mother died, is 33 percent contained.

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A home that was destroyed by the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Napa, Calif., on Aug. 24, 2020 (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

At least five people are reported to have lost their lives in the wildfires in all, and four have been injured. Yolo County, reports KCRA-3, is the latest area to issue mandatory evacuation orders.

In the wake of his personal tragedy, McNeal implores others to take action if, and when, evacuation orders are sounded in their areas.

“Don’t worry about ‘stuff,’” he told KNTV, clutching his mother’s trinket in his hand. “Your family is going to have to deal with the aftermath, and that’s worse than losing your property.”

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