Sandi Young: Coming Home to a ‘Moonscape’

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank July 8, 2016 09:31

Young’s Angora goat herd, including 2-year-old Homer, escaped unharmed

Twenty years ago, Sandi Young went from zero to 60 in no time flat.

Zero to 60 goats, that is.

Young and her husband Howard Gendler, transplanted New Yorkers, bought a 300-acre ranch in Calaveras County and, with no experience whatsoever, bought a herd of Angora goats.

The goats would be useful in two ways: Sandi, a former art director, would make “wearable art” from their fleeces. And they would keep the brush down. One year after the 17,000-acre Old Gulch Fire, this was a huge consideration.

The animals wound up earning their keep in a third way: They became Sandi’s pride and joy.

“At the end of a stressful 90-hour day,” she told me when I interviewed her for a newspaper story in 1994, “I look out there and I see these happy, healthy little things jumping around, and it brings tears to my eyes. This isn’t an easier way of life, but there’s a lot more satisfaction.”

Now, though, Sandi said when I called her recently, “there’s this huge emptiness.”

Young and Gendler’s spread is in Mountain Ranch – or what’s left of Mountain Ranch after the Butte Fire.

Back in mid-September, under a brown sky and with ash raining down, Sandi fled the fast-moving blaze with her five horses, five dogs and her downsized herd of 35 goats.

For two weeks, while she divided her time between the Calaveras County Fairgrounds and a friend’s house, she did not know whether she would find her house standing when she was allowed back onto her property.

First she heard that her house had been destroyed. Then she was told it had been spared. Then she heard the wind had shifted and her place had been overrun after all. Then that it hadn’t been.

“At first, it’s agonizing,” she said of all the conflicting reports. “Then you have to numb yourself. The extremes of feeling are just too awful.”

Complicating matters was the knowledge that most of her neighbors had lost everything. Her joy when she learned that her house still stood was tempered by grief for her friends and guilt at feeling joyful amid their misery.

Even when she returned home and saw that her house was indeed intact, there was little cause for celebration.

The house was full of ash. It smelled “like a barbecue pit.”

A second house on their property, where her father had lived until his death, escaped damage. But the property all around it was “a moonscape.”

Worst of all, Sandi said, “all of a sudden I’m on this island and my community’s gone.”

And in a nasty little twist, Sandi had taken her jewelry and other valuables to friend Mary Anderson’s house in Calaveritas only to find out that while her own house withstood the flames, the Andersons’ home (see “Mary and Richard Anderson: Facing Fire’s Terrible Toll“) was destroyed – along with Sandi’s valuables.

So now what?

Even before the fire, Sandi and Howard had been pondering how much longer they would physically be up to the demands of ranch life. Howard is in treatment for cancer. And at 65, Sandi said, “I can’t buck two tons of hay into the barn anymore. I just can’t do it.”

She wondered whether her neighbors who had been burned out were the lucky ones. Where they have no choice but to move on, Sandi said, “I’m stuck.”

Bleak as things were, she did not sound defeated. Part of the reason, she explained, was the way everyone pulled together.

“I never considered myself part of the community,” she admitted. “I was a loner – the crazy goat lady.”

During the days she spent living out of her car at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds, she learned that everyone knew and was worried about the crazy goat lady.

“The outpouring of concern was overwhelming.”

Also heartbreaking. They were all so traumatized that they found it easier to worry about someone else than about themselves.

As for the work ahead, Sandi said, “The only way I’m capable of dealing with this is to go Zen and deal with it one day at a time. I’m going to do whatever I have to do.”

One of the things she has to do is retrieve some of her goats from Texas. A breeder there sent a truck up north to bring the animals back to his ranch and keep them until Sandi decided whether to sell them or take them back. The goats’ constant chomping at the vegetation was probably what saved her house.

But more than that, she said, “they are my friends, they are my family. Every morning they made me smile.”

She thought about the import of what she had just said.

“I guess I’m not quite ready to change the way I live yet.”

Much help is still needed

A host of agencies and organizations have joined forces to provide long-term help to Butte Fire survivors.

Donations may be made to the Calaveras Community Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund, which provides grants to area nonprofits helping with recovery efforts (

While some fire victims had insurance, “many, many people were uninsured or underinsured,” says Nicki Stevens, part of the newly created Calaveras Recovers. The coalition’s goal is to gather volunteers and donations to provide a wide range of help, including building new homes using volunteer construction teams that have responded after other disasters nationwide (

For more information on offering or seeking help related to the Butte Fire, read “Butte Fire Victims: Resources and Help” in the Resource HQ section at


This story appeared as part of our cover story, “Survivors: Lessons in Resilience,” in our Winter 2014-’15 issue. Click on these links to read the other survivors’ stories:

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


Russell Frank
By Russell Frank July 8, 2016 09:31
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