Assessing Needs and Delivering Care After the CZU Lightning Complex Fires

Northwest  |  January 29, 2021
After Northern California’s CZU Lightning Complex fires in August 2020, Tzu Chi volunteers deliver cloth masks and other supplies to hardworking first responders, hoping to cheer them up and offer moral support. Photo/Judy Liao

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Melody Cao
Edited by Diana Chang, Ida Eva Zielinska

When the Lightning Fire broke out, Tzu Chi volunteers in the Bay Area told each other to prepare for evacuation. They felt that they were very close to the fire, and the fire seemed to surround the Bay Area. Smoke was everywhere. Disaster felt imminent...

Chi-Jen Huang, a Tzu Chi volunteer who has participated in many disaster relief distributions after Northern California wildfires in recent years, recalled how she felt as a CZU Lightning Complex fire was approaching her home in the Bay Area on August 17, 2020. 

Fortunately, in the second week after the fire broke out, the heatwave and lightning strikes eased. Fire responders managed to extinguish the raging flames in various locations around the Bay Area, and the fires would gradually be fully contained. 

At around that time, Tzu Chi volunteers Chi-Jen Huang, Judy Liao, and Andy Chiang, who live in Saratoga, a city in the San Francisco Bay area on the western edge of Silicon Valley, set out together to visit neighborhoods nearby. They drove about 20 minutes to ​​the regions impacted by the CZU Lightning Complex wildfires in the Santa Cruz Mountains, aiming to assess the post-disaster situation and see how Tzu Chi could help the affected communities.

Tzu Chi volunteers conduct a disaster assessment in areas impacted by the CZU Lightning Complex fires immediately after they are contained, preparing to provide imminent relief. Photo/Andy Chiang

Meeting Park Patrol Officers and Volunteer Firefighters

On the evening of August 25, when Chi-Jen Huang, Judy Liao, and Andy Chiang arrived at the intersection of Highways No. 9 and No. 35, the road was blocked by the police. After learning that the Tzu Chi volunteers were from a charity organization and had come to assess wildfire damages to provide disaster relief next, the police officers kindly directed them where to go. 

After the volunteers arrived at Castle Rock State Park, they got out of the car and asked two park patrol officers about the wildfire’s impact on the park and nearby resident evacuations. The patrol officers shared that information then told the volunteers that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, their available workforce was maintaining public safety in all state parks. However, following these wildfire strikes, their force’s capacity was quite strained. 

The officers then suggested that the volunteers visit Boulder Creek, where firefighters gathered, to get more information about wildfire-related activities and disaster relief. Before the team left, noticing that the officers were only using simple face coverings, the volunteers immediately gave the only Tzu Chi cloth mask they had brought to one of the officers and assured the other that they would return with another.

Tzu Chi volunteers talk to park patrol officers about the situation in state parks since the wildfires struck. Photo/Andy Chiang

The volunteers next drove along the winding mountain road of Highway No. 9 to Boulder Creek, giant redwood trees towering on both sides along the way. Arriving at the intersection with Highway 236, they reached the entrance of a famous tourist site, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which was closed due to the fires. They continued driving downhill to the other side of Highway 9. Residents here were under evacuation orders, so all the houses they passed were quiet and dark. 

As they got closer to Boulder Creek, they passed fire trucks and other large vehicles with fire extinguishing equipment attached. The Tzu Chi volunteers also noticed that fire trucks from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services were also on hand to help contain the wildfires. Then approaching a fire station, they saw a group of firefighters who had been on duty that day, sitting in front, taking a break. It turns out that it is mostly volunteer firefighters who crew this fire station. 

The Tzu Chi team asked about the details of how they serve, and two firefighters on site explained that there are some full-time firefighters on duty here, but most on the team are volunteers who join fire-fighting missions when needed. While talking, several fire trucks came and went, and the two firefighters cheered the teams who passed by, expressing their sense of solidarity. 

There are many firefighters in the Boulder Creek Volunteer Fire Department. They all have their full-time jobs but volunteer to fight fires when needed. Photo/Andy Chiang.
Two volunteer firefighters explain the current wildfire situation to Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Judy Liao

It was already dark when the Tzu Chi volunteers headed back home. There was only one road down the mountain, and it was very rough. As they drove on slowly in the dim light, they thought about how it must have been a week ago, when the fire was spreading, and everyone in the community was worried about its encroachment into residential areas. Thankfully, during the emergency evacuation measures, police officers had managed to move residents in groups so the process could go smoothly.

I’m truly thankful to all the firefighters and first responders; they helped contain the fire and protect the residents.

Assessing Damages in Residential Areas and Meeting Evacuees

Five days later, on the morning of August 30, Tzu Chi volunteers Chi-Jen Huang, Judy Liao, and Renee Liu returned to Boulder Creek to further assess the damages caused by the CZU Lightning Complex fires. Big Basin Redwoods State Park, severely hit by the wildfires, was still closed, although some roads in the area had reopened for working vehicles to enter so crews could clear tree branches blocking the roads. However, evacuated residents were still not allowed to return home yet.

The volunteers drove along Route 236, where there was still heavy smoke and dust in the air. They found that many houses along the way were severely damaged, some destroyed entirely. “Fortunately, the residents evacuated in time,” Chi-Jen Huang said with a sigh of relief, taking in the sights of ashes and charred ruins where homes once stood.

In the afternoon, Chi-Jen, Judy, and Renee accompanied another team of Tzu Chi volunteers to the Santa Cruz County evacuation center located in the South Bay Area near the CZU fire site. They brought Tzu Chi’s eco-blankets, cloth masks, and Tzu Chi USA Journal magazines for the evacuees.

During conversations with people housed at the evacuation center, volunteer Chi-Jen Huang learned that many neighboring communities donated essential supplies to help wildfire evacuees as soon as the residents had left their homes. With the addition of eco-blankets and cloth masks from Tzu Chi USA, the residents felt deeply grateful for everyone’s care and concern.

The wildfire survivors are so touched by the love from the community.

Caring for First Responders in Scotts Valley

At around the same time, Tzu Chi volunteer Judy Liao had learned on Nextdoor – a website that connects neighbors and local resources – that in Scotts Valley, there was a hotel full of first responders staying there during the wildfire disaster. Moreover, they were seeking masks for the firefighters still battling the CZU wildfires. So on August 29, Judy Liao, together with Chi-Jen Huang and Andy Chiang, went to the hotel to deliver 120 containers of homemade lip balm and 120 Tzu Chi cloth masks. 

The items had been prepared for distribution by volunteer Sherry Lama the night before. They also brought toothpaste and floss donated by Tzu Chi volunteers to give to police officers and firefighters working tirelessly at this time. When the hotel’s front desk manager accepted the supplies given by Tzu Chi volunteers for the first responders, he exclaimed with delight, “This is more than good!”

Fire trucks stand parked outside a hotel that provides a resting place for firefighters in Scotts Valley. Photo/Judy Liao

The front desk manager said that the Scotts Valley community is very close to the CZU Lightning Complex fire site. Residents evacuated, and most of them have not yet received the notice to return home. However, they sent all kinds of supplies, food, cards, and even balloons to the firefighters in thanks for their efforts to protect the forests, their homes, and the community. All the donated things had been placed at the counter, free to take for the first responders.

The community donated the essential supplies quickly because everyone was thankful and willing to assist the police officers and firefighters fighting the wildfires and protecting their community. These masks you [Tzu Chi] donated also give power to the community.

Tzu Chi’s cloth masks join various supplies and gifts donated by the community, all placed on a counter in the hotel for first responders to take, free of charge. Photo/Judy Liao
A volunteer introduces Tzu Chi to the hotel front desk manager, expressing the willingness to work with the community to support first responders. Photo/Andy Chiang

While in the hotel, the volunteers happened to meet two police officers who had just come back from the field. They learned that fire responders such as the police and the firefighters battling the CZU Lightning Complex fires are on 24-hour shifts and don’t get a lot of rest. The fires were still active in many areas, and their duties remained substantial. 

As they did for the police officers, receiving the cloth masks and lip balm brought by the Tzu Chi volunteers would surely bring a smile to the brave and tireless firefighters as they continued their duties, serving the community.

When there are many good people, the power of blessings and kindness is great.

Two first responders who just got off 24-hour shifts are grateful to receive cloth masks and lip balm from Tzu Chi volunteers when they return to the hotel where they’re staying. Photo/Judy Liao

It was a mission of love and care served on several fronts, as the teams of Tzu Chi volunteers set out to prepare for disaster relief distributions and support first responders still on active duty battling to contain the CZU Lightning Complex fires fully. 

A range of activities is often the case when disaster strikes. Each Tzu Chi volunteer seeks to find ways to be useless to the community, bringing relief to those in need in whatever means is appropriate for the situation and the time. Your love and support will help maintain and expand Tzu Chi USA’s efforts such as these.

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