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Insurance Can't Cover Lost Mementos


The wildfires that scorched Northern California this month destroyed thousands of homes and caused more than a billion dollars in damage. But insurance will only go so far. It might replace the houses themselves. But people also lost irreplaceable mementos gathered throughout their lives. Sukey Lewis of member station KQED reports from Santa Rosa.


SUKEY LEWIS, BYLINE: Squatting next to a warped metal gun safe in what was her kitchen, Kimberly Fulkerth scoops small mounds of ash into a metal screen, sifting for anything that might have survived.

KIMBERLY FULKERTH: The only thing I'm sad about is photos of my kids and our wedding pictures - that kind of stuff.

LEWIS: Fulkerth collected art. Her husband bought and restored old clocks.

FULKERTH: We lost 87 clocks. But, again, they're just things that you collect. You can just keep collecting.

LEWIS: Fulkerth says she's sad at the loss. But she keeps reminding herself that she will rebuild. Down the street in this completely devastated neighborhood, Scott Birdsall looks out over his lot at the burned-out husks of appliances while his wife, Julie, stands in what used to be their living room. She's wearing rubber boots and gloves, looking for anything that might be salvageable.

SCOTT BIRDSALL: I guess she found her high-school yearbooks. Is there anything left of them? No?


S. BIRDSALL: Wonderful. Yeah, this is pretty surreal.

LEWIS: Scott gestures toward the charred shell of a car. It rests on its roof about 50 feet from where it was parked, thrown by hurricane-strength winds stirring the fire.

S. BIRDSALL: Over there, that's her fully restored '63 Fairlane.


S. BIRDSALL: And she used to drive it on weekends.

LEWIS: When they bought the Fairlane, it had actually been in a previous fire. And it was just a metal body. Scott restored the car, surprising Julie with it as a birthday present. It had a white body and a shiny, red roof that sparkled in the sun.

JULIE BIRDSALL: Her name was Shirley because, slowly but surely, we'd get it finished. You know, when I drove that car, time seemed to stand still. I was never in a hurry. I didn't care where I was going.

LEWIS: Julie loves vintage objects.

J. BIRDSALL: I'm very much into beauty, had some really nice things, some stuff I'll never get back - one of a kind.

LEWIS: Julie did find some small, vintage vases made of porcelain dolls' heads.

J. BIRDSALL: This particular one I always liked because her eyes are closed, and her eyelashes are really long, and her hair is bouffant-like.

LEWIS: And there are other finds. A few blocks away, 62-year-old Don Pagal holds a small treasure. It's a large, ruby ring, blackened and covered in ashes but undamaged.

DON PAGAL: For it to make it just shows that we'll make it, too.

LEWIS: Pagel's a veteran. And he was given the ring when he joined the Marine Corps.

PAGAL: It's been to Vietnam. It's been to Saigon. It's been everywhere.

LEWIS: The ring as a symbol for him of the long road he and his neighbors have ahead of them.

PAGAL: And we'll fight through, just like we did then.

LEWIS: All over this neighborhood, on lot after burned out lot, families, friends and neighbors sift and cry, laugh and hug, holding both what they've lost and what they've found. For NPR News, I'm Sukey Lewis in Santa Rosa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sukey Lewis
Sukey Lewis is a criminal justice reporter and host of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. In 2018, she co-founded the California Reporting Project, a coalition of newsrooms across the state focused on obtaining previously sealed internal affairs records from law enforcement. In addition to her reporting on police accountability, Lewis has investigated the bail bonds industry, California's wildfires and the high cost of prison phone calls. Lewis earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.
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