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A frantic search: Father recalls tragic attempt to save wife, daughter trapped in wildfire

Zach McLeod searched two days for his wife and daughter after the Zogg Fire overwhelmed their home. Both of them perished in the fire.

This story contains content that readers may find distressing.

Zach McLeod wants his wife and daughter who died in the Zogg Fire to be remembered for their courage.

"I want everyone to know how bravely they kept it together to keep each other safe to get out of there," McLeod said while describing a tragic chain of events that began on the afternoon of Sept. 27.

The Zogg Fire destroyed more than 200 structures and killed a total of four people when it raced through the oak-covered hillsides of Igo-Ono in Northern California.

Alaina McLeod, 45, and the couple's 8-year-old daughter, Feyla, lost their lives on a day when high winds blew the fire sideways and smoke could've blinded Alaina when she tried to steer her way out of the inferno.

A windy day that would culminate in tragedy

Zach, Alaina and Feyla woke up to 40 mph winds that morning and he was surprised that Pacific Gas and Electric still had the power on — his area wasn't included in a public safety power shutoff like elsewhere.

Zach, 31, waited six days before he was ready to tell what are really two stories: What led up to finally learning of Alaina's and Feyla's deaths, and how his frantic search lasted a full agonizing day before he learned their fate.

The family's three dogs also perished — a spoiled Chihuahua named Maya, an Australian shepherd puppy named Alaska and a Queensland heeler named Kaya. They were in the pickup that was found burned on their road.

The Zogg Fire started Sunday afternoon, Sept. 27, 2020, southwest of Redding.
The Zogg Fire started Sunday afternoon, Sept. 27, 2020, southwest of Redding.
Mike Chapman/Record Searchlight

"They didn't make it out either," Zach said of the dogs. "The fire happened so very, very fast. It took me a while to try and get the whole story from everything I could piece together."

Here's Zach's account spanning a two-day period beginning when the Zogg Fire erupted just before 3 p.m. last Sunday. The McLeod's home was in the path of the furious wind, about 1½ miles southwest of where Cal Fire says the fire started near the intersection of Zogg Mine Road and a dirt turnoff, Jenny Bird Lane. 

Seeing the smoke: 'I knew something was very wrong'

The Zogg Fire sent up a huge plume Sunday afternoon, Sept. 27, 2020, after starting in Igo.
The Zogg Fire sent up a huge plume Sunday afternoon, Sept. 27, 2020, after starting in Igo.
Jeremy Chapman

Zach started Sunday working a half-day at his parents' ladybug business in Igo, about five miles away from his home, to make some extra money. The unique home-based operation collects and distributes the insects to gardeners for natural pest control.

Zach was preparing and labeling packages while parents Suzie Bewley and Rob Hunt were in the mountains outside of town foraging for more bugs. Zach and his parents would later meet up under smoky skies near the old Igo Inn as they tried to discover Alaina's and Feyla's whereabouts.

Zach got off work and called Alaina to see if she needed anything from the grocery store while he ran an errand to the nearby town of Redding, about a 20-minute drive away. 

"She wanted to make breakfast for dinner that night. We were going to do pancakes and waffles, eggs, bacon and sausage," Zach said. "She wanted to get half-and-half for coffee too."

Zach McLeod
As I'm driving to the grocery store, I noticed the smoke and I pull into the parking lot ... and realize where the smoke is actually coming from. So I knew something was very wrong. I could never imagine what exactly was going on.

After dinner, the family planned to hold a game night. They had made a deal with Feyla that they would start playing board games every weekend "no matter what was going on."

They had just brought home the Beat the Parents family trivia challenge and Clue, games they knew Feyla would enjoy.

"She was just so smart and loved showing how smart she was by answering questions we didn't know but she knew the answers to," he said.

On his way to south Redding, Zach saw a large smoke plume developing to the west.

"As I'm driving to the grocery store, I noticed the smoke and I pull into the parking lot ... and realize where the smoke is actually coming from. So I knew something was very wrong. I could never imagine what exactly was going on," he said.

He repeatedly called his house and all he got was a busy signal. He heard the same busy signal when he called his landlords, Joann and Dale Parrott, who had let Zach and Alaina stay at a second house on their 1,000-acre property in exchange for his caretaking services.

Zach figures it was 45 minutes from the time he last talked to Alaina in Igo to when he reached the store.

"From the time I talked to my wife, everything was fine, everything was good. They were happy. They were playing outside with the chickens and looking for lizards," Zach said.

With nobody picking up the calls, Zach thinks the fire had already damaged phone lines.

Time to leave

The fire scene in Ono on Sunday evening, Sept. 27, 2020.
The fire scene in Ono on Sunday evening, Sept. 27, 2020.
Hung T. Vu/Special to the Record Searchlight

The McLeods lived up a steep driveway on a little hill at the very end of Archer Road that dead-ends on the property. Some of Zach's account comes from what his neighbors told him.

"Alaina must've seen the smoke or she may even have seen the flames. She grabbed Feyla and collected the dogs. They all ran down to my neighbor's house because we have one vehicle and I was in town," Zach said.

The neighbors were collecting some belongings and medications, but Zach said Alaina was worried and wanted to get out of there.

Zach McLeod
My wife knew the danger of the situation and she was doing everything right. ... They're heroes to me just for what they went through and how bravely they fought through it. They just didn't curl up and fall and just hide.

"My wife knew the danger of the situation and she was doing everything right," Zach said. "I'm so extremely proud of her. Her and Feyla are so brave. They're heroes to me just for what they went through and how bravely they fought through it. They just didn't curl up and fall and just hide. They did everything right."

The neighbors gave Alaina the keys to their big Ford diesel truck and the dogs jumped in.

"It's not the easiest truck in the world to drive but my wife didn't want to wait any longer. She wanted to get her and my daughter out of there."

Zach said he doesn't know what conditions Alaina was facing but imagines the air was thick with black smoke and it was hard to see.

The escape route would have taken Alaina down a bumpy dirt road.

"It's a hard road to drive on clear days in good conditions," he said.

Once, Zach said he ended up on the side of that road when one of his tires barely went off the edge.

Alaina, Feyla and the dogs made it about a mile to a point where there are sharp turns and the truck wound up going off the road.

The other side of the story

Meanwhile, with the blaze bearing down on the ranching community, Zach headed for home, passing drivers who had stopped on Clear Creek Road to take pictures of the massive smoke plume in front of them.

"I was frantically driving out to Igo from Westwood Village and I must've gotten there in eight minutes — not driving that safe."

He passed sheriff's deputies and fire engines before finally reaching his road, which like many in rural areas are one-way in and one-way out.

He looked several hundred feet down Archer Road and saw a wall of fire several feet tall with a mix of brush and pine cones ablaze.

"I knew at that moment the fire was there and there were tons of people coming out. They were meeting up at the Igo Store and school," he said.

Zach had a decision to make — drive through the flames or go back into town and look for his wife and daughter where others had fled.

"Do I go up (the road) and get them? Are they up there still or are they safe?" he asked himself.

He approached a nearby group of first responders, who "had a lot going on," and asked if all those on the road had gotten out safely.

'It was a really scary night'
Kim Acker, ditch tender for the Igo-Ono Community Services District, said ditch water saved homes but many were lost because the fire moved so fast.
Mike Chapman, Record Searchlight

"I pointed, I said 'That road, Archer Road. We live at the very end of the road. Did everyone get off the road?' They told me yes three times."

"I just wanted to find them and hug them and hold them, and make sure they were OK," Zach said.

He figured the fire already had burned their home down. "I knew (Alaina and Feyla) were going to be broken up about that." He thought, "they must be so scared, they must be so worried."

About a half-hour passed when Zach saw his neighbors the Parrotts drive up.

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"I was so excited I got all the relief in the world and I opened up the back door to their car and it was empty. They weren't in the car and my heart just sunk. It just shattered and I asked them, 'Where is Alaina and Feyla,'" he said.

The couple didn't know. Alaina wanted to leave ahead of them, they told him.

But they said they saw the truck though on their way out. It had been in flames.

"I just had the terrible feeling at that point and then I asked if they saw them on the road running. They said they looked for them on the way out and didn't see them," he said.

Zach and his parents checked ambulances and fire engines without any sign of the two. They held out hope that someone brought the mother and daughter out because a firefighter said people still were being rescued.

"I went from being crushed to having some hope. I'm running around and trying to find out where they might've been taken to," he said.

Zach McLeod
I waited and nobody showed up."

Zach rushed to Holiday Market in Cottonwood, where a Red Cross station was being set up. Next he went to Holiday Market on Placer Street in Redding at another evacuation point.

"I waited and nobody showed up."

Zach and his parents, who had evacuated from their Platina Road home themselves, went back to the Cottonwood parking lot for a long night of waiting.

"All night it just was up and down, trying to find out where they were. We just had every hope in the world they were up there safe and they were just stuck back there."

Zach said firefighters barely saved his parents' house after his stepfather, Hunt, told them a fire was under a propane tank there and a burning telephone pole was in danger of falling onto the house. They paid an emotional visit to the home after evacuation orders were temporarily lifted Sunday.

The fire burned two small bridges. The one on South Fork Road near Archer Road had partially collapsed as its wooden beams smoldered. Another bridge on Archer Road also burned. Zach held onto the thought that his missing wife and daughter were stuck and couldn't make it past the disabled bridges.

This bridge on South Fork Road in Igo was put out of service after the Zogg Fire burned it.
This bridge on South Fork Road in Igo was put out of service after the Zogg Fire burned it.
Mike Chapman/Record Searchlight

Day 2 of the ordeal: Waiting for the news

On Monday morning someone called and said they heard from the coroner that people were being found on Archer Road who didn't make it out.

After making a flurry of phone calls, Zach and his parents were told to go to the Shasta District Fair grounds in Anderson where Cal Fire had set up a command post.

Fire officials there gave them some water and brought them into the shade where Zach said a coroner's deputy came over to talk. It was about 2 p.m. Monday, nearly 24 hours after the Zogg Fire started.

"They didn't have a positive identification at that point, but from what I know happened, they found a truck on the side of Archer Road and there were two people in it that didn't make it," Zach said. "At that point, you know, we knew what had happened."

Feyla's schoolteacher at Igo-Ono Elementary, who her students called Ms. Cindy, helped Zach and his parents get a hotel room for the night before the Red Cross stepped in to help.

Zach said Saturday he felt so awful he didn't eat for three days.

"People are giving us food all over the place. We've tried to take a couple of bites but you just don't want to eat," Zach said.

"There's so many emotions swirling around right now. I feel every bad and negative emotion you would ever name and then some," he said.

From love at first sight, to indescribable loss

The Zogg Fire wasn't the first time Zach, Alaina and Feyla went through a fire disaster. The family was living in Hamilton City in March 2015, as Feyla was 3, when an apparent electrical malfunction in their rented house caused a fire that left them homeless. They were away at the time but returned to a house on fire.

Zach and Alaina McLeod were married in August 2016 at the community church in Igo.
Zach and Alaina McLeod were married in August 2016 at the community church in Igo.
Contributed

Several years earlier, Zach and Alaina met by chance when they both were waiting in a doctor's office in Chico.

"It was one of those love-at-first-sight situations. We saw each other and just stared in each other's eyes for about 30 seconds. She started blushing and I started getting nervous, and it was a whirlwind romance from there," Zach said. "We wanted to marry each other a week after we met."

Zach, who once attended Shasta High School, and Alaina moved to Igo five years ago to get a new start after the fire and got married Aug. 7, 2016, at the community church in Igo.

One thing Zach will remember about Alaina is the jewelry she made and gave away to friends. He recalls how his wife enjoyed showing Feyla how to cook and bake.

"Every night when she would cook dinner, Feyla was in there helping her and watching her," he said.

About a week before the fire, Feyla went to the home of grandparents Suzie Bewley and Rob Hunt, and baked chocolate chip cookies from start to finish.

"She was so proud of those cookies," Zach said.

Feyla would stay with her grandparents several days a week where they had fun swimming and one day making 22 containers of slime. Suzie would tell Feyla ladybug stories while Ron would have dance competitions with her.

"Fey always won because I was the judge," Bewley said.

Zach knows his house is completely gone and the jewelry Alaina made is lost in the ashes. Feyla's art that she would draw for her dad also are gone, including a Happy Father's Day card that was on the fridge.

An acquaintance made it to the property and told Zach everything is leveled there.

"He called for the dogs but I know they were in the truck," Zach said.

Pets, memories, art and photographs: Gone

Other pets that died in the fire at home included a racer snake the grandparents had caught for her and lizards, like the blue-bellies Feyla would catch and raise.

Feyla adored animals so much she told Zach she wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up, and have her own restaurant.

Zach McLeod, left, daughter Feyla and wife Alaina pose for a family photo. Zach said Alaina and Feyla died in the Zogg Fire while trying to escape.
Zach McLeod, left, daughter Feyla and wife Alaina pose for a family photo. Zach said Alaina and Feyla died in the Zogg Fire while trying to escape.
Contributed

Pictures that Alaina posted on Facebook showed Feyla happily hugging a duck and a chicken.

"We had tons of free-range chickens out there. Alaina and Feyla loved their chickens so much they named every single one. They were more pets than livestock."

Zach said Feyla, a second-grader with her dark blond hair and blue eyes, was so smart, she was doing math, reading and spelling at the third and fourth grade levels. "She was very proud of that."

As the family grieves, Zach is getting financial help from two GoFundMe accounts that friends and family created to help pay expenses.

"All the money in the world isn't going to buy them back," Zach said, but he's thankful for the donations and will use them toward services and a memorial to the wife and daughter he lost.

"I couldn’t have wished for a more perfect wife and daughter," Zach said. "They were and always will be my entire universe. I was truly blessed to have them. They will be cherished, loved and missed every day."

On Thursday, the Shasta County Coroner's Office released Alaina's name as one of the fire's victims, saying her body was found on Archer Road around noon on Sept. 28. The office also announced that a minor's body was discovered around the same time and place, but officials did not name her due to age. 

The other two residents who died in the 56,338-acre fire are: Karin King, 79, of Igo, who was found and reported dead about 7 a.m. Sept. 28 on Zogg Mine Road in Igo. Kenneth Vossen, 52, died Sept. 29 at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where he had been taken for treatment of significant burns.

Zach McLeod
I couldn’t have wished for a more perfect wife and daughter. ... They were and always will be my entire universe."

As of Saturday, Cal Fire officials still had the fire's cause under investigation.

Mike Chapman is a reporter and photographer for the Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif. His newspaper career spans Yreka and Eureka in Northern California and Bellingham, Wash. Follow him on Twitter @mikechapman_RS. Subscribe today!