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All she had grabbed that terrifying night was the briefcase filled with important papers her husband always kept near the front door in case of emergency. She could barely forgive herself. She had to go back and look. “That’s it. That’s all I wanted,” said Millie, 79. “I figured he would be mad at me if I left him, you know, didn’t take him with me. So I thought, I better get him. We were together 60 years.”. But really, how could anyone possibly find ashes in the ashes?. From Mendocino to Santa Rosa to Napa, there is profound heartbreak over what was lost in the deadliest wildfires in California history: 42 lives, 8,400 homes and buildings and countless pets, papers and treasures. But now, in the ashy footprints, there is deep gratitude for what was found.

Brigades of trained volunteer “sifters” in hazmat suits and gloves are the best pointe shoes helping to find grandma’s wedding ring, grandpa’s war medals or a child’s handprint from a school craft project. Now, crews from the U.S, Army Corps of Engineers are beginning to clear the charred home sites — bulldozing, scooping, dumping — so there’s a sense of urgency to try one last time to find that special thing in the ruins before even the ruins are gone, “They’re wondering if anything is left, That wondering can keep them up at night,” said Caroline Upton, a volunteer firefighter from Calistoga who also worked as a sifter for the nonprofit Team Rubicon, “Often times, finding things acts as closure so they can move forward with the trauma of what they’ve gone through, They can move beyond it and healing can begin.”..

Some fire survivors cling to memories, some to faith. But for many, holding something tangible — a trinket, a relic — can be just enough. In Calistoga, sifters helped Will and Carol Ashford, both artists, unearth broken bits of colorful ceramics and Venetian beads from the rubble of their hillside home. They had brought the plates and cups and bowls, sometimes just one or two at a time, by backpack from their European travels during their 40 years of marriage. Now, they’ve collected all the jagged shards and fused glass in plastic buckets to make mosaics and decorate a pathway. Instead of detritus, Carol said, “I see some art in the making.”.

In Napa, the home that Kiky Lee designed for herself and her husband, Michael Parmenter, is nothing but a crumbling skeleton, But behind it, the couple found intact the wine cave for their VinRoc Winery, storing barrels of the Cabernet Sauvignon, “We’re reborn,” said Kiky, who also retrieved a “Happy Buddha” statue from the wreckage, “It’s a beautiful day to dream bigger.”, Michelle Hickman found her grandmother’s charred Singer sewing machine, the heads of her doll collection, and the silver goblets from her wedding “that are as strong as our marriage.” But it’s the friendship with Caroline Upton, who “adopted” the best pointe shoes her young family and invited them over for home-cooked meals and movie nights, that is helping her most, “Without her,” Michelle said choking up, “we wouldn’t have made it.”..

And on Atlas Peak Road overlooking the Napa Valley, 30-year-old Sam Valencia — with a history of drug charges and jail time — found dignity. A retired San Francisco lawyer had taken a chance on him, inviting him to be the caretaker in a cottage on his hillside estate. When the fire ripped through, Valencia not only pounded on the retired lawyer’s door to wake him up but, on his way down the hill, he woke up several more neighbors, rescued a couple stuck in a ditch and a barefoot caregiver who feared her charges were dead.

His bravery, caught on videotape, was written up in the Napa Valley Register, At Bistro Don Giovanni where he works as a server, the best pointe shoes the manager printed in bold letters at the top of the menus, “Thank you to our Napa hero, Sam.” Patrons, including former 49ers president and CEO Carmen Policy, thanked him profusely, “This hill has taken me in and accepted me, especially after my past,” Valencia, 30, said, “It’s one way to tell my community and the people I have failed in the past that I’ve changed and that person is no longer here, That person is in the past.”..

Letting go of the past is what’s been so difficult for so many others, like Millie Pletkin. She had kept the urn of her late husband Alex’s ashes on a table in the family room at the back of the house, next to his recliner where he would watch the 49ers on TV. Perched beside it was her favorite photo of him wearing a Giants’ cap, covering the bright white hair through which she loved to run her fingers. At age 81, after a bout with pneumonia, Alex died suddenly in his sleep in January. Even though Millie was in the house by herself these past 10 months, she never felt alone.

Every day, she found herself talking to him, “I would come in and say, ‘I had lunch with so-and-so,’ ” she said, “Or, ‘What do you want to watch tonight? Shall we watch the Warriors or a movie?’ ”, At the best pointe shoes bedtime, she would rub the urn and “kiss him goodnight.”, The Pletkins were “two peas in a pod,” said Steve Pletkin, the youngest of the couple’s four children, who named his own son after his father, “They did everything together.”, The couple met at a Christmas dance in San Francisco when she was a senior in high school, He was three years older, in college studying to become an accountant..

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