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Ramona Residents Sift Memories in the Ashes of Fire's Wake

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Once firefighters got the upper hand on San Diego County's wildfires, homeowners started the process of picking up the pieces. KPBS Environmental Reporter Ed Joyce spent time at a "sifting party" in R

Ramona Residents Sift Memories in the Ashes of Fire's Wake

(Photo: Ed Joyce/KPBS)

Once firefighters got the upper hand on San Diego County's wildfires, homeowners started the process of picking up the pieces. KPBS Environmental Reporter Ed Joyce spent time at a "sifting party" in Ramona. It may have been called a party, but the friends and family that gathered to pick through the burned pieces of their lives were not celebrating.

Scorched hills and valleys can be seen for miles as you drive along Highland Valley Road, on Highway 78 toward Julian and along the Old Julian Highway. The Ramona Valley is now a mix of burned and unburned ranches, avocado groves, homes and farm buildings. Linda Laird's 20 acre farm is nestled along a flat to sloping stretch of land not far from where the Witch Creek fire started. Laird fled her home about 15 minutes ahead of the wildfire.

Laird : And as I looked to the east, I could see the wall of white smoke whiteout and in the foreground on the left side of the house and the right side of the house, were whirlwinds of orange smoke. So my comment was, 'that's too scary, we're out of here.' And of course at that point I went back into the house to grab a few more things and one more cat that showed his face.

She had enough time to evacuate her 16 llamas, several horses, two dogs and four cats. Chickens and two cows were also saved. But Laird's home was not.

Laird : So yeah, I had a good cry. And other than that I mean, you know, what are you going to do? You can only cry for so long. Every now and then when I thought about something else that I lost I cried, but, you know, what are you going to do? If I were all by myself maybe that would be a different story. But I got a family to take care of and I got critters to take care of and you know, it needs to be up and running again.

Getting the farm up and running again means carefully sifting through the remains of her home. Poking through the ashes are burned remains of a refrigerator, water heater, bed frame and stove. Laird, along with friends and family, gently search in piles of white ashes, pieces of burnt metal and glass, looking for precious heirlooms that might have survived the inferno.

Laird : Ten antique pocket watches. Grandpa, my dad, his dad were on the railroad so they all had pocket watches. I had an Acura Bulova that said right on it ‘railroad approved.’ It was the first wristwatch that the railroad would allow their employees to use. A packet of my aunt's letters to my uncle when he was in World War Two. Stuff, but irreplaceable stuff.

The gusty Santa Ana winds returned -- as if to blow away what was left of her home. But the winds simply made the task of picking through the ashes more difficult. Her emotions, like the swirling Santa Ana winds, also kicked up again.

Laird : Oh, my birdies, oh, oh. Those are Grandma's cockatoos. I know that's funny but these are older than I am. Well, if you can imagine, I'm 61 all this stuff has been saved and moved and saved and moved and saved and moved. So, it's a hell of an end.

In this case, no animals were lost. The burned and broken cockatoos were ceramic. Laird bought the property in summer 2006 after selling her University City home. Despite the losses, she's happy to be back on her ranch and plans to rebuild. Laird points to a hillside peak above her home that has a small stand of unburned trees. She says eagles nest there. She hopes they too will return.

Ed Joyce, KPBS News.