Carmen McReynolds was an intellectual whose pursuits reached far beyond her medical textbooks and into the expanses of the American West, where she grew up.

She rode motorcycles, shot rifles and played classical piano. She worked for decades as a doctor in the East Bay before retiring to Santa Rosa, where she bought a home with her best friend two decades ago.

Dr. McReynolds died trying to escape that home when the Tubbs Fire destroyed her neighborhood on Oct. 9. She was 82.

“She was a great sister,” Janelle McKinley, 78, of Nevada City said Sunday. “She was like a third parent and a best friend.”

Search crews found that Dr. McReynolds had been trapped inside her 1973 Mercedes-Benz, which was still in the burned remains of her garage on Kilarney Circle near the Fountaingrove Golf Club, her family said.

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They can only speculate about the final moments that ended what they called a glorious life.

“She was trying to escape, but she didn’t make it,” said her nephew, 48-year-old Gabriel Coke. “If there was no electricity, she couldn’t have got the door open.”

Coke said he was inspired by his aunt, but added, “Imagining her in that kind of a terror in the middle of night is heartbreaking. I wish she could have died more peacefully.”

Dr. McReynolds was born Carmen Colleen McKinley in Durango, Colo., in 1935. Her father, a doctor, and her mother, a nurse, raised her with a brother and sister in a rural home, where the kids learned to get their hands dirty at a young age.

“She was very much a Western gal,” Coke said. “She always had a pocketknife nearby and could shoot a rifle, but she was still very dignified.”

Dr. McReynolds studied at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and married once, divorcing after seven years. She later moved to Hayward and worked as an internal medicine doctor at Kaiser Permanente hospitals, including the campus in Oakland, McKinley said.

“I was always fascinated by her,” Coke said. “She was really proud to be a doctor — you could imagine the sexism she encountered in the 1950s as a medical student.”

Though she didn’t call herself a feminist, Dr. McReynolds stuck up for women, and “demanded to be treated as equally as any man,” Coke said.

She was a hungry academic with an appetite for any subject, and those who knew her never dreamed of getting in an argument with her out of fear of ending up on the wrong side of the debate.

Dr. McReynolds retired around age 60 and bought a house with Nadine Caligaris, one of her best friends from back home. Caligaris died from a heart attack in 2005 at age 75, and Dr. McReynolds had lived alone in the Kilarney Circle home since.

She had a cabin near the Russian River where she kept her motorcycle and rifles, but her visits there began to decrease in recent years. A double hip replacement challenged her mobility.

Dr. McReynolds had recently made detailed arrangements for her passing, including leaving her wealth and property to charity, Coke said.

“I was always impressed with her,” he said. “I always thought it was really unique to be related to someone like that.”

McReynolds is survived by her sister and her brother, Joseph McKinley III of Sidney, Mont. A funeral has not yet been scheduled.

Evan Sernoffsky is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twtiter: @EvanSernoffsky