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"What next?": 49 Fire couple copes with devastation of loss

Auburn's Castellis say thanks to donors, admit it's a humbling process. PLUS: Tips on saving treasured photos from fire
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Bleak and oppressive, an unrelenting rainstorm moved into Auburn, presenting Joe Castelli and Faye Matthews-Castelli with yet more challenges in replacing the things they left behind. First, it was a bed for the cat. The return of cold weather meant their pet needed a warm place to lie. The old bed was incinerated in the 49 Fire and – until Tuesday – warm weather had allowed them the luxury of not even considering getting a new one. Then Faye began to feel the chill herself and realized she had not replaced any of the warm coats lost in the Aug. 30 fire that destroyed their rented North Auburn home. The fire scorched nearly 350 acres and destroyed 63 homes. The Castellis, married for 30 years, were celebrating Joe’s 57th birthday with a lunch in Folsom and returned just as the fire swept through their neighborhood and began to burn their house. They had no insurance and they removed what little they could. With Faye already gone in one vehicle, Joe left the house last. Reaching the front door, he was stopped by flames and smoke from retrieving anything more. “The flames circled me and I could feel the oxygen leave my lungs,” Joe said. With panic overtaking him, he ran through blinding smoke and managed to find his truck. His hands found the door his eyes could not see and he found oxygen enough inside to breath and escape. But an escape from one nightmare hasn’t allowed the Castellis to overcome another – the irreplaceable loss of prized, meaningful and necessary possessions. The losses were immeasurable, most notably the computer equipment Joe has used to write programs for his livelihood and the paints and brushes Faye depended on for her artwork. Her illustrations have found their way into national exhibits and onto greeting cards. “The last 42 days have been hell emotionally,” Joe said. “From the first moment, when I was running away from the house, I felt it – complete hopelessness and devastation.” The flames that engulfed the house stole cherished symbols of both their lives. For Joe, among the missing was a prized white, 1967 Fender Stratocaster guitar, cufflinks given to his father by Vice President Spiro Agnew while the elder Castelli was Air Force attaché to Italy, a 1776 silver Maria-Theresa thaler coin from Austria that Castelli bought as a child, and a helmet and scabbard he found on the Verdun battlefield in 1966. Faye said that she has scanned images of much of her artwork so that is saved. But 30 years worth of original work was destroyed by the fire. Also gone were her daughter’s baby books and other special photos. With her business at home, she lost more than 600 boxes of cards that were ready for shipping. They were able to save their pet cat, Enzo, a macaw they named Chili, and Barney, a moluccan cockatoo, but will never again enjoy the fruits of three decades of collecting Christmas ornaments. Faye said she’s already starting a restoration process, comparing it to the time just after the two were married when they started life together with little else than each other. Looking around their sparse furnishings, inside a month-to-month rental half the size of their old home, located in an older neighborhood near Old Town, the couple said they are uncertain about their future and – with the help of friends, family and the Salvation Army – trying to dig out of a crisis exacerbated by a deep dip in the economy. The dinette was given to the Castellis by a business he used to work for. Joe has been trying to find steady work since a state government contract ended in May. The rugs came from martial arts friends of Faye’s. The couch, sideboard and mirror were inherited from a house after they were abandoned by the previous renters. A desk clerk at the motel they had temporarily stayed at gave them an entertainment center. At first, they said they were more apt to refuse financial help, feeling that others would need it more. But after Joe cashed his last check from a temporary employer, they started to accept the gift cards and other donations more freely. “This has been very humbling,” Faye said. “You have to swallow your pride.” The Castellis provided a long list of people to thank, from the Salvation Army and a Buddhist group that helped them that first night after the fire, to anonymous donors who have given gift cards to art stores to help Faye restore her invaluable brush and paint supplies. For 49 Fire victims Joe and Faye Matthews-Castelli , both in their late 50s, it’s a new start. Thirty years after they exchanged vows, the Castellis say they can relate to the ending of the 1960s movie “The Graduate,” which sees Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross – wearing a wedding dress – sitting at the back of a bus bound for they know not where. The unasked and unanswered question is on both their faces – “What now?” ---------------------------- Fast facts: Preserving memories Your home is insured but your memories aren’t, says Web site scancafe.com. Here are some tips on ensuring old photos – one of the first things Americans choose to save from a burning house – are going to survive a blaze like the one that hit Auburn on Aug. 30: - Try to keep old photos in a dry, cold and secure environment. It doesn’t have to be your home. Moisture and heat will speed the natural deterioration of old photos. A wildfire doesn’t have to burn a house down in order to damage your photos. - Digitize your old photos. You can do it yourself of use services like ScanCafe. - Once they are digital, make lots of copies. Then give them to other family members and friends for safekeeping. - Don’t just store your old photos on a disc. They aren’t permanent either. So back up all files regularly, both at your home and at an offsite location that’s professionally maintained. Even a friend’s computer will do. Information: Scancafe.com