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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

From the time Amy Marlar’s Coffey Park home burned, she began sifting. Every day for weeks she returned to the ashes and metal that once was her home to dig. It almost became an obsession.

“I’ve been sifting pretty much ever single day since it happened,” said Marlar, 46, who spent all but five years of her life in Coffey Park. It is where she grew up and where she had lived for the past 10 years in a rental on Santiago Drive with her daughter. “I have bags and bags and bags in a storage area of just broken stuff.”

For years she collected Portuguese pottery; her grandmother is from Portugal. Those shards will eventually become part of a mosaic.

She keeps going back because she keeps finding things beneath the debris. She stops by after work each day — she works in medical claims for Sonoma County — and in the waning winter light, digs until dark.

The most important treasure she’s pulled from the ash is her grandmother’s rosary.

“The wooden beads were burned off, but Jesus on the cross is in perfect condition,” she said. “It was a great find for me because it’s the only thing I have left from them. Everything I’ve ever accumulated for 46 years was in that house. I just want to get every single thing I can possible recover. I keep thinking if I don’t go back, something I don’t know about is under the debris. Until the very last day and they clear the lot, I will be going back.”

Marlar’s grim mission is all too common in Sonoma County — Sonoma Valley to Rincon Valley, Fountaingrove to Larkfield — where 5,130 homes were destroyed in October’s inferno.

People who lost everything are digging for whatever they can recover. What has emerged from the ash seems both random and oddly prophetic. Some are trying to derive both comfort and hope from the objects that somehow, miraculously survived.

Kim Murphy, 60, lost both her home and her office, both in lower Fountaingrove. All but the memory of family heirlooms are wiped out. She was particularly determined to find a chandelier that had once graced the home of her great grandparents in Helena, Montana. But that was wishful thinking. What was found, instead, was something much more modest — a Christmas ornament that said “Blessings.”

It was her son and some of his fraternity buddies who unearthed it. “Everybody was so excited to find it. They were cheering. The ground was still smoking,” she recalled of that morning after the fire raged across the mountain at more than 2,200 degrees, so hot it melted their Lexus.

One other thing that survived? One piece out of the family’s Christmas nativity set.

“Our baby Jesus was intact in his little manger but Mary and Joseph and The Wise Men were not wiser after the adventure of the fire. They got a little beat up in all that.”

Murphy did manage to pull out a few horse bits, all that was left of the horse equipment she was saving in hopes that one day she and her husband could rescue draft horses from Canada raised for the drug Premarin and put them to use in therapy programs. They’re not usable but they are a tactile reminder of the dream, And she’s collecting shards of pottery that she hopes to commission Santa Rosa High ArtStart students to turn into a commemorative park bench,

As for that “Blessings” ornament; she’s taking that as a reminder of what she does have. All her family survived and she even was able to recover her cat, who went missing the night of the fire.

“It’s hard to see when you’re in the middle of it,” said Murphy, who is now living in a rental home owned by friends in Glen Ellen, a place also suffering from severe fire loss. “But our community will be different, hopefully stronger.”

Janet Reisner, whose home on Hemlock Street in Coffey Park burned to the ground, said, like Murphy, the first thing she found was the Baby Jesus from her nativity set. In fact, the whole fragile set, made in Peru, survived. Only two little shepherds lost their legs. They appear to be made from fired clay.

“That was our metaphor for the whole experience, that what was fired seemed to be the strongest. And that is what happens with life. You go through hard things and it makes you stronger for the next one.”

A parking supervisor for the city of Santa Rosa, Reisner lived in that four-bedroom house for 21 years and raised four children there. Over the years she and her husband had completely remodeled the house, which was built in 1976. A contractor was scheduled to come that Monday morning after the fire to install the final hardwood floors.

The Reisners recovered a few more Christmas ornaments with sentimental meaning. There was a clay ornament that her now 26-year-old daughter had made and a “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament given to the same daughter.

She was heartbroken that she couldn’t find her wedding ring. But oddly, of all her jewelry, a gold serpentine chain, probably 20 years old, came through intact, without even a kink in the chain.

For some people, the objects salvaged from the fire have taken on greater significance than they had before that terrifying October night.

For Marie Melchor, the one thing that she was able to save from the Hopper Road storage unit where she kept almost all of her belongings, was a silly musical snow globe. A small fire had broken out in the unit, but it didn’t burn. But firefighters had broken open some of the units and sprayed heavy bursts of water that scuttled smaller objects around. The snow globe, featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, an elf and a Yeti monster, wound up inside someone else’s unit.

Strangely, the plastic globe had been dented on one side. But when she claimed it from that neighboring storage unit after the fire, it had been melted back into a perfect ball again.

At the holiday lights celebration staged amid the ruins of Coffey Park at Christmas, Melchor dressed as an elf and rode in the horse-drawn sleigh. That night she brought the recovered snow globe and set it under the neighborhood tree.

Somehow it seemed appropriate, she thought. Like the many people who had flocked to their old neighborhood, it too, was a survivor.

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