Glass fire victims suffer new blow when looters strike ruins of Sonoma County home
Dona Asti has been fighting heartbreak since the Los Alamos Road home she and her husband shared for 43 years was consumed by the Glass fire on its advance across the Mayacamas Mountains into Santa Rosa two months ago.
The wildfire destroyed virtually everything they had: the artifacts of their lives together as the parents of two boys; treasured items that had belonged to parents and grandparents; the wedding dress Dona Asti wore when she and Denny were wed 55 years earlier; a lock of her mother’s hair wrapped in thread.
Also gone was the vast collection of bird books compiled by Dona Asti, a stalwart in the bird rescue community and director of raptor rehabilitation for Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue. The fire claimed Denny Asti’s old Austin-Healey Sprite sports car, long-kept yearbooks and a century-old family platter that came out once a year, on Thanksgiving.
But Dona Asti was unprepared for the profound anguish of learning last week that looters had made off with some of the most prized items that remained: a collection of sculptures and other decorative items the couple had salvaged from the ashes on their hilltop property, including irreplaceable heirlooms and antiques from around the yard.
Among them were an antique bird cage, a rusted hand plow, a concrete St. Francis of Assisi statue and a sharpening stone wheel that once belonged to Denny Asti’s grandfather, an Italian-born immigrant who settled in Sonoma County around the turn of the last century. The stone itself, about two feet across, was extremely heavy and would have required more than one person to cart away.
The very idea that someone would hit them when they were so obviously down challenged her faith in humanity, said Dona, 74. It was “like a dagger into our heart,” she wrote on Facebook.
“When you get looted, it’s almost worse than the fire, because that happened to everyone, and it was natural — I hope,” she said during a visit to her hard-hit neighborhood this week. “But for someone to come up here on purpose and do this?”
It hurt, particularly, she said, that what was taken had little value to anyone but them, though the Astis believe the thieves hoped to cash in on the loot.
“I could play detective, but I don’t have the energy,” Denny Asti said, resignation clear in his gaze.
“I wanted to drive around town. I wanted to go to garage sales. I wanted to go to secondhand stores. But I’ve got more important things to do. I don’t have the time.”
The Astis already face a daunting task in rebuilding their longtime home in the shadow of Eagle Rock, overlooking the steeply folded hills above Highway 12. It is one of more than 330 Sonoma County homes destroyed by the Glass fire, which altogether destroyed 1,555 structures in Sonoma and Napa counties before it was fully contained on Oct. 20.
Like many affected property owners, the Astis will be starting from scratch, though the cinder block walls and charred and melted detritus of their old house, wraparound deck, wrecked cars and barn have yet to be cleared. Government funded debris removal throughout the 67,000-acre burn zone is set to begin this week.
It was unclear Tuesday if looting of the Astis’ property was a singular case or if wider reports were coming in from Sonoma County’s newest burn zones, also including the Walbridge and Meyers fires in west county. Calls this week to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and Santa Rosa Police Department inquiring about looting reports were not returned.
During a walk around the ruins of the place Monday, the Astis managed lighthearted banter and pointed out new growth sprouting from the bases of a charred redwood and a eucalyptus tree. Fresh parsley grew in the fenced and otherwise fried vegetable garden, and recent rains were greening the scorched hill above Los Alamos Road.
Denny, 76, called out a band of low oak trees on a steep hill below the back deck that each year were pruned back to preserve the view toward the hills to the west.
“You can imagine some of the sunsets we’ve seen,” he said.
A few larger trees have been cut and left in pieces at the edges of the four-acre property, but plenty others, including fruit bearers, stand blackened, their fate unclear.
Denny has been deep watering every day in hopes of saving some, and they plan to wait before taking action to see what might survive.
But Dona said she sometimes wonders if it’s all too much, if she and Denny have the energy to meet the challenges ahead.
Eight years ago, the Astis lost their oldest son, John, 46, who died around this time of year.
Their younger son and his family live in Santa Rosa, and they have long hoped to leave them their house and property — a magical place where wildlife flourished and kids and grandkids explored and played.
That’s a primary reason they want to rebuild. And though they know that it will be different when they return — that the landscape will need time to regenerate and may not completely return in their lifetimes — “our heart is here, and this is where we want to be,” Dona said.
In the meantime, they’ve taken steps forward, little by little, working with the insurance company, securing a long-term rental, meeting with an architect to discuss rebuilding plans.
On the property, they leave out birdseed, alfalfa and apples for the deer and other wild critters, whose bounty of food was largely incinerated in the fire.
At the edge of the driveway, a short distance uphill from the roadway, the couple had set aside some of the items they had found intact around the place, including the plow, some sculptures and the old bird cage. A couple of plastic pink flamingos once placed inside by their granddaughters had melted in the fire.
Denny had been making daily visits to the site to water, check the animal feed “and look around just to make sure nothing’s disturbed,” but missed a day last week while the couple did some shopping two days before Thanksgiving.
When he drove up the following day, he noticed fairly quickly that their stash of salvaged belongings had been raided. A metal trash can of bird seed had been overturned, too. A makeshift fence across the charred gate to the pool had been moved, as well, though it was only later he realized several antique wagon wheels had been removed from the fencing and stolen.
Each day since, the Astis have discovered more belongings missing: wind chimes, two bird baths, a glass globe on a stand, the sharpening stone.
On Monday, Denny showed his wife several vintage patio chairs, folded and piled as if ready to be loaded, though they remained on the ground near the back of the house as if left behind at the last minute.
“They must have had a truckful,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat
I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment.
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