Santa Rosa fires: Father, son collecting fire-damaged photos to restore and return to owners
Thousands of bits and pieces of thousands of lives were blown across Sonoma County by gusting winds during the recent North Bay fires. Photographs, documents, book reports, stamp collections — the kinds of keepsakes crammed in drawers or forgotten in garages — have become the only connections to what life was before.
A Santa Rosa Junior College professor and his son are working to preserve those links.
Donald Laird, chair of the computer studies department at SRJC, and his son Sutter, have collected more than 30 fire-damaged photographs and documents.
Both are amateur photographers. Laird, 51, teaches classes at the junior college in photo restoration while his son, 19, is a student there. Safe at their home in Cotati, the elder Laird stayed up for 36 hours tracking the fire as it raged through the county beginning early Oct. 9, monitoring social media.
“I noticed about the second day that somebody posted saying they had found this burned photo in their front yard, and does anybody know who it belongs to,” Donald Laird said. “I figured the odds of one random Facebook post finding the owner was pretty long, and I was trying to figure out something to do to help.”
That’s when it hit him that he could provide a central location for people to send such items, and then use his photo restoration skills to bring the details back as much as possible. And do it for free.
When Colleen Pisaneschi evacuated her Coffey Park home in the early morning hours of Oct. 9, she grabbed some clothes, a bracelet and three photographs off her refrigerator. Her home at 1935 Dogwood Drive burned to the ground that morning, and she thought she lost everything else: any record of her life in Siena, Italy with her second husband, Dino Pisaneschi, legal records, mementos.
But someone near Pinercrest Drive and Waltzer Road found negatives from her third wedding. Someone else at Fulton Road, she thinks, found part of her brother-in-law’s will. And someone else at a skateboarders park found a record of a donation in Dino’s memory to The College of Idaho.
Then Thursday, she got word of yet another discovery: a list, written in Italian, created by a nanny who ran household affairs for generations of Dino’s family.
She found out when the Lairds contacted her. They told her they’re working to collect found photographs and documents damaged in the fires, restore them and return them to their rightful owners.
“I was stunned,” Pisaneschi said. “I’m hoping there will be more.”
Among the documents the Lairds have received are old book reports (one was on the book “Capyboppy” by a boy named Jason), school photos and part of a stamp collection.
The two have established a database where they’re tracking anything they collect by location found and identifying marks, and assigning items an ID number. They scan the items and post them to sutterlaird.com/firephotos.
Once they find an item’s owner, the Lairds ask whether the owner wants it restored, and, if so, how best to accomplish that.
“It’s a process somewhere between a science and an art,” Donald Laird said. “We’re not going to be able to recover something when there’s absolutely nothing left, but we can focus on the people that are still (in the photo), and maybe refocus the image and the composition.”
The project has brought the tragedy even closer to home for his son.
“When he showed me the first photo, I was kind of blown away,” Sutter Laird said. “It was singed around the edges, and I looked at that and realized it had escaped the fire by a matter of inches. … It was a startling thing.”