Kalispell native Devin Rich discovered a vase amid the ashes and debris of a home consumed by the Woolsey Fire in California.
“To my mind’s eye, looking at it, it was just a vase,” Rich said.
But not to the homeowner standing nearby, whose eyes he said filled with tears.
“My daughter hand-made that vase for me,” she told him.
Rich, a 1999 graduate of Flathead High School, works as a TV producer in California and lives in Marina del Rey. He was in the midst of a self-imposed sabbatical when news coverage of the Woolsey Fire’s devastation of nearby Malibu arrested his attention.
Rich decided he wanted to help somehow, but wasn’t sure how to proceed. He knew he could submit an application to volunteer with the Red Cross or with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but worried he might land a role far from the heart of the destruction and deepest need.
“One night when the fires were burning I looked toward Malibu. It hit me right then that I needed to be there physically, doing something,” Rich said.
With the help of his sister, Kiersten Bare of Kalispell, Rich connected with the Upper Ojai Relief volunteer group.
Outfitted with protective gear, Rich joined other volunteers helping property owners sift through the destruction of their homes in search of items with sentimental value, tangible value or both.
One of Rich’s friends pitched in, searching where a homeowner believed a favorite bracelet belonging to his wife might have been before fire leveled the house.
“That’s all he wanted to find,” Rich said.
And Rich’s friend found it.
“The homeowner just broke down,” Rich said. “That’s what he was there for.”
Not all discoveries yielded good news.
Rich found the bones of a homeowner’s missing cat, for example.
He said sifting through the ruins of the homes could be dangerous, requiring heavy boots to resist exposed nails, thick gloves, a hazardous materials type suit, a respirator and eye protection.
Rich said the work was difficult, but rewarding. He said homeowners were grateful whenever volunteers found something in the ashes that had meaning for them and their family.
Meanwhile, Bare, an animal lover, has worked online to try to reunite former residents of Paradise, California, the town destroyed by the Camp Fire, with pets abandoned because of the fire’s remarkable speed and intensity.
Dogs, cats and other animals in large numbers have been dispersed by necessity to shelters far and wide, she said. The owners of some of the animals might have perished in the fire. But others are searching for their lost pets, whose photos are posted both by the shelters and, whenever possible, by the pet owners.
Working many hours online, studying photos, Bare has searched for potential matches. The quest can pull her in, she said, as she encounters the eyes of pets that appear bereft.
“I’ve stayed up all night long a couple of times,” she said.
To date, she has helped at least 16 pet owners reunite with their animals.
When that happens, and the reunion is confirmed, there is a remarkable feeling of reward, she said.
Yet she downplays her contribution, noting that hundreds of people are engaged in similar efforts.
Bare emphasized that pet owners should microchip their animals. With microchipping and vigilance about updating addresses, reuniting pets and owners is much less challenging, she said.
“The amount of animals displaced [by the fires] is just horrific,” Bare said.
For more information about Upper Ojai Relief go to www.upperojairelief.com.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.