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Barber: The boys who saved Rincon Valley Little League

Longtime umpire Ron Nagy, center, in blue, is presented with a commendation letter from the CEO of Little League Baseball by California Little League District 35 administrator Don Goodman, left, and District 35 umpire-in-chief Rod Lund before a game between the Petaluma National and Vacaville Central at Rincon Valley Little League Park in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, July 20, 2016. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

PHIL BARBER,

Mark Douglas was worried about his house in Rincon Valley after he and his family evacuated the night of Oct. 8. But he was also worried about his baseball fields.

Douglas has been president of Rincon Valley Little League since July. And almost immediately after the fires shattered the peace of Wine Country, he started to get texts. One neighbor told him point blank: “Your park’s gone.”

How could it not be? Douglas had seen the massive flames descend the hills nestled by Riebli and Calistoga roads. The Little League fields were directly in their path. Sometime on Oct. 9, Douglas gathered a few other board members and headed to the facilities, expecting the worst.

“As we drove through the neighborhood around the fields, house after house was gone,” Douglas recalled. “We get there and we pull up, and we see a Jeep behind a fence, and two kids. Immediately, we were like, ‘trespassers.’ Then we see their faces, and I’m like, ‘I know these kids.’”

Indeed he did. It was Brady and Bryce Cannon, who had spent much of their lives haunting the ballpark in Rincon Valley. They and their mother’s boyfriend, Chris Carter, had spent the previous several hours busily tamping down hotspots and building impromptu firebreaks. Just the three of them.

The league suffered heavy damage to its equipment, losing the golf carts, mowers, screens for batting practice, etc., that were locked up in several metal storage containers. But the fields, grandstands and main buildings stand intact, defying the scorched earth that surrounds them. They are testament to Carter, the Cannon brothers and their determination to preserve a community treasure.

The Cannons’ recollection of the fire will sound familiar to anyone who was evacuated that night. Bryce, 15 and a sophomore at Maria Carrillo, smelled the smoke first and went into his mom’s backyard (the boys split time with their father in Lake County) just as the fire crested the hill and took aim at the city below.

He woke the rest of the household. They packed a few bags, banged on some neighbors’ doors and took off for a safe haven in Sebastopol.

Sitting around and waiting for news did not suit Brady Cannon, a 17-year-old senior. He is not a typical high school kid.

“When I walk into a building, I like to know where the exits are, what kind of people are sitting around me, focus on their eye movements and stuff,” Brady told me by phone from his father’s house. “You can’t let it consume you, then you become paranoid. But a basic understanding of where to go if you need to, that’s not paranoid. It’s just common sense.”

Part of Brady’s preparedness is a perpetually packed go bag. In it he keeps food, water, medical supplies, flares, compasses and other items that might come in handy in a crisis. He was far more ready than most when the fires hit.

Early on the morning of Oct. 9, Carter and the Cannon boys were stir-crazy. They were desperate to help in some capacity. Lisa Carter didn’t want her younger son to go, but Bryce, with much effort, talked her into it. The three men (it’s hard to call them boys when they have more or less formed a volunteer fire company) picked up Carter’s Jeep and drove into Rincon Valley.

The Cannons’ home appeared safe. They hosed down the roof and turned their attention to where flames still attacked the hillsides.

Both brothers quickly realized the Little League fields were in peril.

If this seems like a strange fixation during a raging natural disaster, consider the Rincon Valley Little League fields. They are a collection of five diamonds, surrounded by trees and creeks and golden summertime hills. The fields are completely funded and maintained through donations, and are not open to public use. They are kept behind a locked gate, so they tend to stay in good condition.

More importantly, this complex off of Baird Road, like a lot of Little League parks, acts as a neighborhood anchor. It has been that way since RVLL was founded in 1960.

“I played in this league as a kid,” said Douglas, a principal for MKM & Associates, a structural engineering firm. “This place is sacred to me, and it’s sacred to those kids.”

Brady and Bryce had each spent at least a decade in the ranks of RVLL — T-ball, Peanuts, Farm leagues, Majors and Junior/Senior divisions. Their father, Brad Cannon, is a previous league president.

“That was the battleground, man,” Brady said. “All the kids in the neighborhood played there. If you weren’t playing, you’d come up and watch other kids, eat snack bar food and laugh, stuff like that. I had my first job there. I’d pick up garbage and clean bathrooms and make $15 a week. There are so many people I’ve seen around Santa Rosa, and I recognize their face from there. Everybody comes to that park.”

As Carter (a veterinarian) and his girlfriend’s boys approached the fields, house after house had been reduced to chimneys and a few fragments of metal. One image stuck out to Bryce. Just beyond the Little League property lived a friendly older woman who constantly tended her garden.

“I remember when I was playing Senior League games, the games would start at 8. I’d get there at 7 and see her working in her garden,” Bryce said. “After the game, I’d hang out for a while, and I’d leave at like 12 and she was still working on the garden. That garden was so nice. And it was gone from the fire. It was so sad.”

When they reached the park, they were surprised to find the gate unlocked. They learned that a neighbor had needed to get hoses and equipment through the ballfields to save his house from the back (and was successful).

The park was surrounded by smoldering embers. The trees between the parking lot and the biggest field, known as the Multi-Purpose Field, were turned to ash, as were the logs used to mark boundaries.

The fire had crept to the edge of the diamonds.

“There weren’t any real flames,” Brady said. “But it was so hot, incredibly hot.”

Fortunately, the boys were familiar enough with the property to know where the water pump house and electrical box were. They shut off power and started hosing down hotspots.

They couldn’t reach all the glowing areas from the pump house, though. They had to find a way to get water to other corners of the fields. They found a couple wheelbarrows that hadn’t been incinerated, and proceeded carrying water in them. Over and over, they wheeled water across the grounds and dumped it on smoldering brush.

“I did that from third base all the way to the left-field foul pole (of the Multi-Purpose Field),” Bryce said.

The vicious winds of the night before had subsided, but it was still breezy, and the trio worried that the fire would spread again. They needed a firebreak, and their remedy involved the two elemental materials of the sport: red dirt and white chalk. Fire had surrounded the baseball diamonds. Now Carter and the Cannons used the baseball diamond to surround the fire.

The air was acrid with smoke. Brady, of course, owned a ventilator that he had used for metalwork. Bryce and Carter wore paper masks, switching out for a new one every half-hour or so because they got so filthy.

They hadn’t really brought food. Bryce said he survived the day on Hot Tamales.

But the Cannons accomplished what they had set out to do. They refused to let the fire claim their Little League park.

Douglas said the league lost about $80,000 worth of equipment. There’s a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $4,000, but Douglas emphasizes that approximately 50 kids across RVLL lost their homes; he’d prefer neighbors contribute to them before donating to the league.

Difficult times lie ahead for Rincon Valley Little League and so many other people here. But Douglas can’t forget what it was like to arrive at the park that day and find the Cannon boys.

“I saw the fence and the green grass, and I was speechless,” Douglas said. “All the rest, it doesn’t matter. The park still lives.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.