now you need to go home and find your missing valuables

Part 4: How to Find Lost Valuables After a Wildfire or Disaster

Post Disaster Search & Recovery

Ok, so you just lived through a terrible disaster, and you were evacuated, and  that you were forced to leave behind.  If it was a major disaster, you may be in for a real shock.  Although our experience is mostly loss from a wildfire, it could also have been an earthquake, tornado, or a hurricane.  Many of the techniques are the same.  Your home may not be there anymore.  What you might find is a lot filled with debris, or in the case of a wildfire, nothing but metal and ash where your home used to be.  That is exactly what we experienced in December 2018, when we were allowed to return home, after being evacuated from the Camp-Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.  We searched our home and then helped everyone we could to find their valuables.  We found that helping others recover their things took our minds off of our own loss and helped in our emotional recovery.  Neighbors helping neighbors.

Learning the hard way

Having volunteered and searched over 85 burned houses in the Northern California Camp-Fire, and more in other areas, here are some guidelines we learned for finding lost items in the rubble.  The picture above is me searching a home after the fire.  It had rained and snowed for 2 months, so most of the toxins had washed away.  I still should have been wearing protective gear, but I was tired, and had been detecting this place for days.  I wasn’t setting a very good example for you.  And yes, that’s a MAGA hat that a buddy gave me.  I’m not political at all, more of a very independent constitutionalist, so don’t jump on me for the hat.



How to Find Lost Valuables After a Wildfire or DisasterAnd don’t let anyone else do it either.  The more you disturb your search area, the harder it is to find your valuables.  Depending on how hot the fire was, your fine gold rings may now be little ash covered blobs.  Move them around and you probably will never find them.

Have a map

Draw out a floor plan and mark out on paper where you remember your items were, and any landmarks like stove, oven, microwave, bed, TV, etc.  See if you can see any of those items now.   Some of the bigger appliances will clearly be visible.  It’s very disorienting being in all that ash and trying to remember where everything was.  If you have a floorplan, you have a way of mapping out your possible target locations, and you will be able to calculate where your valuables may have ended up.

Chart out the collapse

Next try to visualize the house as it was in relationship to the remaining foundation.  Check your map often and mark it.  Look what direction the house collapsed and where your stuff fell.  Most houses don’t just drop straight down like a Vegas hotel demolition, but they usually fall in a particular direction and distance as walls and the floor collapse.  Best place to start plotting the fall is usually the kitchen or bathroom.  You will see where the stove, the oven, the toilet or  sink is now in relationship to where it was before the fire.  They are the big landmarks to look at.  They will give you the approximate distance and direction of collapse, so you can project where other objects are now.  Remember that lighter objects, and objects that were up high on a shelf, will travel farther in the direction of the collapse.

The more you approach this as an archeological dig, the more successful you will be at finding your valuables.  Also know that the old prospector saying about “gold being lazy” applies here.  Gold doesn’t travel far unless a lot of force like rushing water acts on it.  The exception is if it has liquified from the fire and there is an easy path down hill.

Which detector should you buy?

Get yourself a decent metal detector with a small search coil (6″ max).  An inexpensive detector like a Garrett ACE 300 or ACE 400 with the optional 4.5” search coil, a Garrett AT MAX or AT Pro with optional 4.5″ search coil, a Fisher GoldBug Pro with a 5” DD search coil, a Minelab Xterra Pro or a Nokta Legend with the optional 6″ round search coil  will do just fine.  If you have access to a more advanced detector, that is even better, if you are familiar with it, but most of your stuff can be found with those models listed above.  We used Whites Electronics MXT All Pro detectors with little 4×6 “shooter” search coils.  Whites Electronics is currently out of business, but there are plenty of other metal detectors by other companies that will work.  I have given you examples from our store, but by all means buy them from wherever you can get the best price.  If you have questions, call us, because we want to help you.  We have been exactly where you are now.  Stay away from Walmart, Costco and Target.  Their detectors aren’t up to this job at all.

Size does matter

Remember, you’re detecting in a sea of trash and scrap metal, so smaller is better for search coil size.  You do not want a large, really deep search coil, because your detector will penetrate ash with ease with a smaller coil, and your search area will be littered with metal and junk.  The smaller coil will also allow you to separate your good targets from all of that junk.  If this all seems overwhelmingly technical, it really isn’t.  Once you do it a little, you will get the hang of it.

Searching and detector settings

First thing to do after you turn on your detector is to ground balance.  You want to do this in an area with ash, but nothing else in the ash. You will hold the ground balance button and “pump” the machine up and down about 8 to 10 inches until it gets a stable signal.  This is so you can neutralize whatever signal the ash has so that all you will hear is targets, and not the dirt or ash, which have their own values.  Be sure to turn down your sensitivity, because you only want to search the ash, not 6″ below the dirt.  Most of your finds will be no deeper than the depth of the ash.

Some of the lost gemstones

Patience is key here

Swing slow and methodical.  Overlap your swing path so you don’t miss any ground.  Do not rush through this or become impatient.  Unless your home was looted, your stuff is still there and you just have to be very methodical and patient.  You may not find it all the first day, and if that is the case, then come back the next day and pick up where you left off.  We once searched a burned house for 7 days straight to recover a lady’s rings and 300 gemstones.  Once we found the rings, we knew the gemstones weren’t too far away, so at that point we sifted very slowly with 1/8” screens.  Slow and steady wins the race here.

How to Find Lost Valuables After a Wildfire or DisasterWhat are you looking for

Your gold jewelry is probably unrecognizable.  Many people in Paradise used the volunteers to sift their lots, and couldn’t understand why they didn’t find their rings.  It made our job even harder.  The rings have probably melted into little gold nuggets and they’re now covered in ash, looking like a billion other pebbles in the rubble.  That is why you must use a metal detector. Listen for the gold or silver signal, and then sift that smaller area with an 1/8″ sifter.  Don’t use a bigger opening or your tiny blob of gold or silver will fall through the screen.  Can you see the gold in the picture here?  It’s there.

A pinpointer will help

If you don’t want to sift so much, then after finding the target area, use a hand held pinpointer to find the target easier.  We place our sifters on top of large round Rubbermaid plastic garbage cans.  That way you get a rocking motion from the can as you move the sifter, the can supports the weight of the sifter, and all your debris will stay in one place.  When it’s about 2/3 full, find a clean spot and dump it upside down.  Now if you need to re-search your debris, you can see where it all is.  It is not that complicated, just very time consuming.  This is slow, tedious work, so take your time, and don’t get discouraged if you don’t find things right away.  We were very experienced and it took us a few days sometimes as well.  You can do this.  Persistence pays off.  Here is a video of us giving the 600 gemstones back to the owner.

Click here for the short video


Safety gear is required

We seriously recommend wearing Tyvek suits, gloves (rubber gloves under leather work gloves), and a hat or ball cap (ash goes everywhere when your sifting).  Gloves are a must, and a good first aid kit and some hydrogen peroxide (we usually carry two bottles of it just in case, and eye wash).  Nails, glass, and razer sharp pieces of rusty, corroded metal are everywhere.  You don’t want a cut or puncture in this environment.  Don’t forget goggles too.  The ash is caustic and can seriously burn you.  We try to find the suits that have the attached boot covers, so that we can wear heavy work boots underneath.  A steel shank rubber boot is good, but be careful because some of the time they have steel toes that can interfere with a metal detector.  They do also make electricians boots that have a hard plastic toe instead, or regular hiking boots which won’t set off your detector.  A good N95 or P100 mask is essential.  If you can’t find a mask, get a half face respirator.  You do not want to breathe in the ash.   It doesn’t look toxic, but it definitely is, and it might affect your health later on.  Can we say carcinogenic?

An extra safety reminder

How to Find Lost Valuables After a Wildfire or DisasterWe’ll say this again. Take your time and search thoroughly.  You’ll find more with patience and focus.  This is not a race.  Besides this is a dangerous environment and accidents happen when people rush things.  Think before you act.  Also, stay hydrated.  You’ll sweat a lot in the Tyvek suits, especially in the heat and sunshine.  Drink lots of water, gatorade, etc.  Stay away from coffee or alcohol.  You don’t want to lose fluids in the heat, and working in a Tyvek suit can be brutal on a warm day.  Last thing you want is heat stroke or dehydration.  You can’t find anything from a hospital bed.

One last little hint

If you’re just searching for coins, turn up your detector’s descrimination a little so it rejects more trash, and gently rake back layers while detecting (a partner can make this go way easier).  The best time to see coins in the ash is about 1 hour before sunset.  For some reason the angle of the sun makes them pop visually at that time.

Good luck.

Message us with any questions.  Hopefully you’ll beat the looters to your stuff.  We saw so much looting after the Camp-Fire.  It is a shame people feel a need to prey on others when they are down the most.

Be careful who you allow to help you

Also, be careful who you allow to help you.  Some people will sift away and have no clue what to look for, and the tiny gold blobs will slip right through the sifter screen.  It will go unnoticed because it looks like any other ash covered pebble.  Also, unfortunately some other people will pretend to be helping you, find a few things for you, and then come back later after you’re gone to scoop up the good stuff.  We’ve seen it too many times.

One last word of caution

Lastly, if your home burned within the last 3 weeks, please know that your house and lot will be seriously contaminated and heavily toxic. Just because it doesn’t look too bad, doesn’t mean it won’t give you horrible health complications later.  Once things settle down, you can search your property with a Tyvek suit, goggles, boots, gloves, and an N95 respirator.  Right now it may too dangerous.  Trust us, we’ve been where you are.  We lost our house and everything we own to the Camp Fire, and so did most of our town.  We know how impossible this seems.  You’re not alone.  You can do this, and we are here to help.


If you liked this article, then please rate it, comment and share it with others.  You might just help them save their grandma’s ring, or other lost valuables.

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