Behind the Scenes After Valley Fire

National Headquarters  |  October 14, 2015
Tzu Chi USA has been providing extensive emergency relief in California after the devastating Valley Fire. At the same time, filmmaker Renee Liu and cameraman Michael Chiu filmed a documentary about the disaster, sharing the story of one family out of hundreds who lost everything they own. Here are Michael Chiu’s recollections about his experience:

When I first met Paul Dethlefson, I was slightly worried about what he would think of me, and my camera. We’ve never met before, and Paul had recently lost his home to one of the biggest wildfires in California’s history. I didn’t want to come off as “inconsiderate” to his situation, especially since I wanted to film parts of his life for a documentary. So I was caught off guard when he immediately told me that he didn’t mind me filming and interviewing him at all.

He only had one request: “Please don’t film me while I look for my cat…” His cat?

For Paul and his wife Judy Lee, that day was the first time they’d been allowed to see what remained of their old home. Paul was away in New York when the fire broke out, but his wife was there, and had only minutes to escape before the flames engulfed their house. And now, the two were heading home to see what they could find of their life before the fire.

When they arrived, only a pile of charred rubble was there to greet them: Their house was completely unrecognizable. As Paul and Judy searched through the wreckage, they showed me – and my camera – what they found. Old family heirlooms had been reduced to dust. Cars that were drivable only days before were now rusted junk. Canisters of film containing countless home movies were burned, shriveled up, and utterly unplayable.

Then, I busied myself filming something else, as Paul went off to search for his missing feline friend. He didn’t find her…

During his interview, Paul mentioned that if anything good could come from this, it would be a new understanding of the “importance of living things instead of stuff.” The fire also made him realize that his mother shouldn’t be living all alone anymore at her age.

Though he lost everything, he decided this would be a good opportunity to start a new sort of life, and to bring his family closer together.

Throughout this whole ordeal, all Paul really wanted to find was Maggie, his cat.

As we wrapped up the interviews, I wondered what I would take if a fire were to threaten my home. What would I grab? My expensive laptop and camera? Irreplaceable photos? Family treasures? Would I be content just to have gotten out alive? 

After the initial shock wore off, I hope I’d be able to reach the same realization as Paul. One where I could build on what happened as a way of getting closer to those around me. I think Maggie, the cat, must have been thinking something similar since she came home a few days later as well.

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Sharing by cameraman Michael Chiu
Photo by 姜至真

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