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They Helped Families Salvage Treasures From the Ashes : Fire aftermath: Volunteers search home sites, recovering more than $20,000 worth of jewelry. Their only reward is the smiles of thankful beneficiaries.


Jan Pazzi's diamond wedding ring survived last year's Altadena fire just fine, but it took a treasure-hunting hobbyist from Downey to retrieve it from the pile of debris that was once Pazzi's home.

George Johnson said he and his crew also were able to find most of Pazzi's other jewelry and her grandfather's pocket watch in the ruins of her Kinneloa Canyon Road home after a daylong search in mid-December. The effort barely beat the bulldozer blade--Pazzi's lot was scheduled to be cleared by a county crew the next day.

Johnson is a member of the Prospectors' Club of Southern California and the West Coast Prospectors and Treasure Hunters Assn., two groups that have come forward to filter more than 20 dump truck loads of ashes and debris through the metal screens of their sifters in hope of finding lost treasures for victims of the fires that destroyed hundreds of homes throughout Southern California in late October and early November.

Using skills honed through searches for missing murder weapons for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and hours spent combing Old West ghost towns, members of both clubs have conducted searches of more than 20 home sites. They have recovered more than $20,000 worth of rings set with diamonds, rubies and other precious stones.

Their only reward for the long hours and the countless cuts from chunks of broken glass that nick them through their work gloves is the smiles on the faces of homeowners after the prospectors find what they are looking for.

Johnson said he went up to Pazzi with his hand closed, then opened it to reveal her ring. "Her scream could have been heard for 10 blocks," he said.

"We work completely for free--heck, I've driven over 2,000 miles in the last few weeks working on searches in Laguna and Pasadena--but her smile made it all worthwhile," said Johnson, 68, who retired to do treasure hunting after a 30-year career as a boatswain's mate in the Navy.

In their searches, the prospectors use sifters that are 2-foot by 3-foot welded metal frames lined with wire screens that fit over wheelbarrows and 35-gallon drums, Johnson said. Ashes and debris are shoveled onto the screens, and then the prospectors sort through the material that does not fall through the sifting screens into the drums and wheelbarrows underneath.

Aside from the jewelry, nothing much else of value could be salvaged from the Pazzi home, which was destroyed along with 120 others in the Kinneloa and Pasadena Glen areas.

"I just feel so lucky to have found my wedding ring in all this," Pazzi said. Although the heat from the fire turned her children's play set into a puddle of colored plastic goo, her diamond came through the 2,000-degree heat unscathed. Finding it buoyed her spirits, and the work of the prospectors gave her hope that something could be salvaged from the disaster.

"It was especially great in today's world to see people ready to give their help to people for no money at all," said Pazzi, a 36-year-old homemaker.

She said her family might not rebuild their house because they might move closer to her husband's work in Orange County. They are currently renting a house in Arcadia.

Pazzi spread the word of the treasure hunters' work to her neighbors, and Stacy Sproull, who lost her home in Kinneloa Estates, called on the groups to find a ruby ring her grandmother had left her and an antique surgical kit that belonged to her grandfather.

"We thought the ring was gone," said Sproull, 35. "Friends had dug through the whole area and found nothing. But these people really know what they're doing, and (Johnson) found the ring."

The searchers "also found a big, flat stone my daughter had painted for my husband when she was 2," Sproull said. "My daughter treasures it as much as my husband now that they found it . . . I'm so glad we found some things; if we hadn't done this, we would have always had this nagging feeling we could have found certain things."

The idea to start looking for homeowners' valuables came to Sandy Crawford, a past president of the West Coast Prospectors, when she heard about members helping out with searches after a fire in Glendale about three years ago and after the devastating Oakland blaze in 1991.

"We started out at a house of one of our club members that was destroyed," said Crawford, 50, a homemaker from Los Alamitos who has been treasure hunting for 11 years. "We've been working the whole month of December."

Crawford and Johnson said both clubs are still ready to volunteer to help anyone search for valuables before bulldozers roll in and clear their lots.

"We're still available," she said. "We're doing it for the joy. When we find something homeowners are looking for, the joy we see in their eyes makes it all worthwhile."

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