Precious Remnants: Connecting Sonoma County Fire Victims with Pieces of Their Past

Following the Sonoma County fires, a few local residents worked hard to collect singed pages from beloved books, burned postcards, letters and photographs and reconnect these rescued remnants of the past with their owners.

Days after fire evacuees had returned to their homes, Stephanie Hamilton-Oravetz was walking through Coffey Park to check on a friend’s mother when she noticed singed fragments of paper in the bushes, on the sidewalks and in the gutter.

“It was like a little history of a neighborhood had rained down,” says Hamilton-Oravetz.

She discovered partially burned books, charred instructions on how to upholster a chair, pages from a magazine about horses. There was “Charlotte is dying,” scrawled on a scrap of a child’s book report on “Charlotte’s Web”; part of a Christmas card with the notation “from Grandma Jeannette”; and lines from Wordsworth’s epistle to Sir George Howland Beaumont (“Let me not ask what tears may have been wept / By those bright eyes, what weary vigils kept”). Moved by the discovery, Hamilton-Oravetz gathered these pieces of singed words, imagery and history. If she could find their rightful owners, she thought, there could be some healing for those who had lost so much.

Realizing that social media would be the most efficient way to connect these artifacts with their owners, she set up the “Saved Memories from the Sonoma County Firestorm” page on Facebook. It has since served as a clearinghouse of images to help reconnect people with their memories.

Within a few days, Hamilton-Oravetz had reunited all the pieces she found with their families. Her favorite story is from a man who made prints of negatives he discovered in his backyard, which turned out to be wedding photos. He scanned the photos and posted them on the “Saved Memories” page. Almost immediately the images were identified as those of Coffey Park resident Colleen Pisaneschi’s wedding in Italy, and the negatives were returned to her.

Hamilton-Oravetz’s project is similar to the restoration efforts of Santa Rosa Junior College professor Donald Laird, who has joined forces with his son Sutter to collect firedamaged photographs and documents, connect them to their owners, and restore damaged photos for free. Coincidentally Pisaneschi has benefitted from both projects, since the Lairds had located a list, written in Italian long ago by a household employee of her late husband’s family.

“I was stunned,” Pisaneschi said soon after the discovery. “I’m hoping there will be more.”

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