Patty Shales believed that everything inside her house in the Los Angeles hills was destroyed by a wildfire. But a treasured possession of her late mother's survived.
Patty Shales was asleep in her home in the Brentwood hills of Los Angeles when her neighbour called to say a fire was burning near the Getty Center art museum.
Shales, 67, looked out her window and could see flames on the Sepulveda Pass, but not close enough for her to worry about evacuating on that October night. It was 2am, and the pass had burned before. She went back to bed.
A half-hour later, her daughter Blair, 37, awakened her, shouting, "Mum! Mum! It's here."
"It was dark and smoky, and it got real hot inside the house," Shales said. "I put on workout clothes so I could run good, got the dogs and a bag of kibble, and left."
She did not take any other possessions.
Seeing flames in her rearview mirror, she knew that her bedroom was already on fire. Her German schnauzers, Jack and Knight, rode with her to safety, but she was sure the home her late husband Gene had built for her in 1976 was gone.
"The place is now just ashes," Shales said of the 7,000-square-foot home, which on the day it burned was on the market for US$6 million ($9.4 million). "There's nothing left."
The Getty fire, as the blaze that sparked on October 28 was known, torched 600 acres, destroyed 10 homes and forced many residents — the Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James included — to evacuate.
Shales returned to see the devastation for herself three days later, and learned then that not everything was lost.
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As she approached Chickory Lane, she showed her driver's license to Jaime Moore, an assistant fire chief. He checked her address against a list in his hand.
"I had to tell her her house was destroyed," Moore said.
He also had something he thought might be hers: a small jewelry box that firefighters from Engine 89 had found, drenched in the gutter about 1,000 feet downhill from her home. The firefighters suspected that the box was washed there by water from their hoses.
"They told me what street they found it on," Moore said. "And I went there and Patty's house was the most severely damaged on that street." He figured the jewelry box was hers.
"I held it up to Patty," he recalled, "and she immediately said, 'That's my mother's wedding ring.' "
In an interview this week, Shales explained that after her mother died a year ago, she had placed her jewelry box high up in a closet. "Somehow it blew out of that jewelry box to the front of the house," she said. "I just couldn't believe it."
Shales, who is now living in a rented bungalow in Santa Monica, said she felt that the ring's reappearance was a sign from her mother. "The fact that that's the only thing that survived is something that's a message to my family that she's in heaven, she's OK," Shales said. "I feel giddy."
This was the second fire her mother's ring survived. In the 1990s, her parents narrowly escaped when their house in Las Vegas burned down; her mother, Dorothy, had the ring on her finger. Her father, Vincent McDonough, 96, bought the ring as a replacement for the one he had proposed with following his service in World War II. When the original ring was lost in a garbage disposal in 1959, McDonough bought a simple gold band with a small diamond for Dorothy. That is the ring firefighters found.
As for the Brentwood house, Shales said that it was insured for fire, and that she planned to sell the lot once it was cleared of debris.
But family keepsakes, like the jewelry Shales' husband had given her for birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine's Days and Christmases, are gone. So are her grandparents' original immigration papers from Ellis Island. Her daughters — Blair and Brooke, 39 — grew up in the house, and lost childhood possessions like the blown glass figurines they collected on trips to Disneyland.
Describing her former craftsman home as "an architectural masterpiece" of heavy oak beams, with koi swimming in water channels running through the home, Shales said she would miss the nearly 270-degree views of the Pacific Ocean and the Los Angeles skyline from Palos Verdes to Dodger Stadium.
Fire officials have said the Getty fire began when tree branches fell on an electrical power line during high winds. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles called it an "act of God."
Shales is inclined to agree. On Wednesday night, as she traveled with Moore to a dinner honoring Los Angeles firefighters for heroism, she said she gave her new friend "an earful about my connection to the Holy Spirit."
"There's just no way this could happen without God in it," she said of the survival of her mother's wedding ring, which she was carrying with her. "There's no way — I didn't get to save one thing."
Written by: John Ismay
Photographs by: Jenna Schoenefeld
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES