He called it his “walk of shame.”
“At that point, I knew it’s a losing battle,” he said. “I just walked through the fields that were already burnt and sat in the mud and water and watched everything burn.”
The couple’s twin cats, Bocce and Vida, couldn’t be found when Vannoy and Sanchez were packing their things earlier that night. But as Sanchez approached the pond, he found Bocce, badly burned, he said. After some time spent trying to offer him water, the 4-year-old cat died in his arms.
When he and Vannoy returned to their property a few days later, they found Vida had somehow made his way to the place where Sanchez had laid Bocce. But he, too, had died.
“It just broke our hearts to see that,” Sanchez said. “I just had hopes for the donkeys, that they had survived somehow.”
Dangerous to stay behind
Unexpected changes in fire conditions and breakdowns in contingencies are common reasons why civilians who defy evacuation orders require rescue, said Ben Nicholls, Cal Fire division chief.
“A wildland fire can look very benign, depending on the weather conditions or fuels it’s burning in,” Nicholls said. “That can change on a dime. And what was a benign, low-intensity fire becomes a fire that not even firefighters can be in front of safely.“
He said he understands why people feel the pull to fight for their homes, especially if they believe fire resources are already stretched thin across several incidents.
“I’ve had landowners in past fires say, ’I’m going to stay and defend my home,’ and they stay,” Nicholls said. “Their family is more worried about them than they are worried about the house. (They’re) worried about that individual being hurt or worse because of that fire. No human life is worth a building or a piece of property.”
Vannoy said a family friend was in contact with firefighters in the area, and thought they might be able to rescue her husband if needed. But she also believed the pond would provide Sanchez with needed refuge in a dire situation.
Vannoy didn’t call for a rescue. Instead, she spent five or more hours on the phone with her sister, avoiding the cloud of anxiety that might surround her if she were left to her own thoughts.
At around 6 a.m. Monday, Sanchez called her. He had found the iPhone in the other, mostly dried-up pond. Somehow it had survived. And somehow, so had he.
“That was my gift,” Vannoy said. “When I went back to the property, I didn’t cry, because I’ve got my husband. That’s all that matters.”
Not giving up
Wednesday afternoon, Vannoy and Sanchez went back to the property again. Equipped with apples and slices of bread, they coaxed Mango, a timid miniature donkey, up to the field surrounded by a blackened forest.
A scout with Sonoma CART was the first to find Mango, said Angelina Martin, a spokeswoman for the organization. The nonprofit, started after the 2017 firestorm, assists with large and small animal evacuations, but also helps owners reconnect with their animals after fires pass through.
Sanchez, Vannoy and the team are hopeful that Newton, Cuca and Boo might be safe in someone’s field.
For now, Mango will find a new home at a nearby ranch, where he’ll have some llamas for company, Vannoy said.
“They will foster Mango (until) we rebuild,” she said in a text message. “I’m crying with so much joy!”
The miniature donkeys were part of the couple’s vision for their property: building a little corner of Italy in the hills east of Santa Rosa. The verdant forest and vineyard of sangiovese grapes that they largely sell to local vintners also contributed to realizing “Alpicella,” the name they bestowed on their property. The town in Italy where Sanchez’s mother was born is the namesake.
“We bought this old farmstead up there and thought we would raise children, grow organic grapes,” Sanchez said. Though they didn’t raise children there, the couple hosted exchange students, provided a home for children in foster care, and offered their guest unit as a vacation rental.
“We just tried to share the spirit of that property with as many people as we could over the years,” he said.
At this point, they do plan to return, to clean up and rebuild, the couple said. But before that, Vannoy said, they’ll spend a little time away. With Mango taken care of, they’ll take a road trip and regroup.
“We’ll come back when property rejuvenates,” she said. “When things start turning green.”
“We haven’t given up,” Sanchez said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or [email protected] On Twitter @ka_tornay.