Written by Christina Chang
English translation by: Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
On Saturday, November 2, 2019, just a few days before the anniversary of the Camp Fire in Northern California, fifty-eight Tzu Chi volunteers revisited Concow, a community that had been ravaged by the wildfire one year prior. Tzu Chi held a winter distribution for hundreds of locals who still struggle to rebuild their lives after the disaster in the hopes of preparing them for the cold winter ahead.
Practical Supplies Help Residents Stay Warm
The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, devouring 153,336 acres, destroying 18,800 structures, and claiming 85 lives. The Concow area is located near the origin of the fire.
Hundreds of locals who were having a hard time making a living in the past have since been even more devastated by the violent wildfires. Particularly in the Concow hill areas, the difficulties faced when traveling are frequently overlooked.
One year ago after the fire, Tzu Chi volunteers visited the area. After identifying the needs of residents, volunteers came to the Concow area to give their care and support to residents each week, ensuring they know they are not alone. Nearly a year after the fire, Tzu Chi volunteers have continued to provide their love.
After considering the needs of residents, volunteers concluded that the supplies to be distributed would be warm blankets, sleeping bags, jackets, solar chargers, and solar portable lamps, as well as a $50 gift voucher for shopping at local hardware stores.
A Tzu Chi volunteer, Julie Lin, who is in charge of the coordination of winter distributions in the Concow area, described the life of residents after the fire. After their homes were destroyed by the Camp Fire, she’d said, most residents were forced to live in trailers or tents as temperatures continued to plummet. One year after the fire, the road to recovery for survivors is still a long one, but as Tzu Chi volunteers continue to deliver their sincere love and compassion, we’re helping them move forward on that road hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder.
Locals began collecting wood panels to build a temporary shed to help stave off the cold during autumn nights.
“It’s difficult to see how the residents are living under these conditions without the proper funding,” Julie Lin said. Therefore, Tzu Chi volunteers prepared cash vouchers which will allow residents to purchase the gas, planks, and other materials and tools required to build the shed.
Praying for a Brighter Future
The temperature difference between day and night in the Concow area is quite large — the temperature at night often falls below ten degrees Celsius, or, fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, on the day of the winter distribution, the daytime temperature was warmer. As a result, over 100 residents came to receive the supplies.
The day before the distribution, Tzu Chi volunteers set up tents in the open space next to the warehouse. Before the start of the event, nearly 100 residents had already gathered in the tent. Tzu Chi volunteers and representatives of social service groups from the neighboring City of Chico attended the event. Together, nearly 200 people attended the opening ceremony and prayer for the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire.
At the beginning of the ceremony, Father Richard Yale, a priest from the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chico, led everyone in a prayer for a successful recovery in the near future. After being introduced by Tzu Chi volunteers, Father Richard began visiting residents in Concow frequently following the wildfire. On the day of the distribution, from the morning until the afternoon, he assisted in greeting the residents who’d come for assistance.
Melody Proebstel, a representative from the United Way of Northern California in Chico, commended Tzu Chi volunteers at the opening ceremony, expressing her gratitude for Tzu Chi’s winter distribution in Concow. Carefully considering the needs of residents, she provided much-needed practical supplies for the people.
Michael, a resident, led neighbors in prayer together. He shared what he had with his neighbors after the Camp Fire, regardless of the losses he’d suffered as well.
Skip Culton was another Camp Fire survivor whose words and actions resonated deeply with Tzu Chi volunteers. When the fire destroyed Paradise City, Skip not only lost his home, but also his job. At present, Skip is working in Tzu Chi’s Chico office. He is working on the mid to long-term recovery project after the Camp Fire. At the ceremony, he sang “Another Prayer for Paradise” which he personally composed. He additionally shared the story of how Tzu Chi volunteers helped him after the Camp Fire, and encouraged residents to have hope.
Eleven students from the Sacramento Tzu Chi Youth Volunteer group took approximately one and a half hours to commute to do their “Earth and Wind” martial art performance at the ceremony, representing the journey of Tzu Chi volunteers in their future recovery efforts for residents in Concow. The young volunteers hope their caring and energetic spirit has infused an even greater strength into the community.
Tzu Chi Touches Hearts
Due to the relative remoteness of the Concow area, people in the community have always applied the spirit of camaraderie and unity whenever they needed a hand. After the Camp Fire, their sense of care and solidarity has only grown.
Another local named Nicole has also faced losses due to the Camp Fire, but she still did everything she could to help her community. After the disaster, Nicole provided her home for public use in addition to being the warehouse manager to take care of supplies. Thanks to her help, people have a place to take a shower and use a washing machine to wash clothes. There are additionally two generators for survivors to store food in the outdoor freezer. Nicole also often helps deliver goods to about 70 families in the community that she’s familiar with, many of which have no means of transportation.
Although Nicole supports her community in many ways, she does not have enough for herself. Therefore, she was grateful to Tzu Chi for providing financial and material support for her community.
“There are rarely any charity organizations in this area who come in to hold direct distributions,” Nicole explained. “So I am very grateful for the support from Tzu Chi throughout the year. Especially today — the distribution is held in the warehouses that everyone usually gathers so that many residents who have no transportation are more likely to be here.”
On the day of the distribution, Nicole gathered several neighbors early in the morning and came to the site. In addition to receiving supplies, she wore a Tzu Chi volunteer vest and helped with the distribution itself. Greeting and welcoming residents, she embodied the gratitude, love, and care that Tzu Chi volunteers always strive to provide.
Teri is another resident who actively assists her neighbors in the Concow area. She has cooked two hot meals per day for nearly 40 neighboring families after the wildfire. After discovering her situation, Tzu Chi also provided material support. The ground had begun to freeze in the past few days, so it was quite cold. Although other organizations donated blankets, she also came to pick up an eco-blanket to help stay warm.
“The attitude from Tzu Chi volunteers makes me feel comfortable. They don’t make me feel like a beggar.” Tzu Chi volunteers provide their support with the utmost respect and understanding, which is one reason why Teri is especially grateful for the relationship she has with Tzu Chi. It’s all about love.
Emilia’s home was destroyed in the Camp Fire. Her husband, a construction worker, and four children, live in a small trailer home and a temporary shed they’d built themselves after the wildfire. They usually use generators to supply electricity for their daily use, but the cost is a heavy burden to bear. Therefore, when the solar lanterns and solar chargers were given to them during the distribution, the whole family heaved a sigh of relief. The solar charger is convenient for mobile phone charging, allowing them to stay in contact with others and not have to worry about power outages.
Cherryle, an older woman who has difficulty walking by herself, lives alone in a small trailer home. After the Camp Fire, her financial situation became quite precarious. The daily fuel and gas cost, in particular, present a great difficulty for her. The solar lantern and solar chargers were able to help reduce some fuel cost, however: “I’m very grateful to Tzu Chi volunteers for their thoughtful ideas on supply selections; it really helped us solve many problems.”
Don, a 90-year-old grandfather has lived on his own in a mobile home for many years. He arrived just in time for the distribution. Tzu Chi volunteers helped him complete his registration for supplies, and before he left, he smiled and said, “Thank you for chatting with me for such a long time.” Indeed, Tzu Chi volunteers provide not only monetary relief and supplies, but an attentive ear as well. Emotional support is equally as important as financial help on the road to recovery.
Tzu Chi’s Mid to Long-Term Aid
The winter distribution in Concow was organized by Tzu Chi’s Chico office in July of 2019, and the newly established Tzu Chi Chico volunteer team was responsible for preparing for the event. Although the new team has limited manpower, the distribution fully demonstrated the strength of the local volunteers. With the collaborative efforts put forth from San Jose and Central Valley volunteers, the winter distribution was a success.
In the year after the Camp Fire, Tzu Chi volunteers not only provided emergency relief, but also introduced their mid to long-term recovery project. By initiating a long-term recovery program in the Chico area, Tzu Chi is helping the community move toward a more hopeful future as we unite with local organizations, and help progress this recovery process.
Tzu Chi invited Sharon Salz of the Camp Fire Long Term Recovery Group to participate in the winter distribution at Concow as well. During the distribution, Sharon accompanied the residents who came for support, and worked closely with Tzu Chi volunteers.
In the past year, Minjhing Hsieh, CEO of Tzu Chi’s Northwest Regional branch, has been driving for more than three hours every two weeks to Chico from San Jose. He participated in the meeting for the mid to long-term recovery for the Camp Fire. Working together with local volunteer teams, the office and charity care cases were set up. Volunteers hope to collaborate with mainstream organizations and help rebuild the homes of survivors after the wildfire. Minjhing Hsieh recounted that when the Camp Fire broke out, Tzu Chi volunteers quickly responded, and launched their disaster relief mission in the emergency rescue center, distributing blankets and emergency cash cards, and formed strong bonds with survivors.
Awaiting Spring, Residents Move Forward with a Smile
Coralie used to live on a farm in Concow, but it was completely destroyed in the Camp Fire. She’s very grateful to all the organizations who donated clothes, supplies, or even money to help her through the year after the disaster. And she was especially grateful that Tzu Chi volunteers came with hugs and smiles, giving her hope.
On the day of the distribution, in addition to receiving supplies, Coralie also served as a volunteer. She felt joyful after a day’s work. And when speaking of the future, Coralie stated that she expects to resume work on the farm when Spring arrives. She’ll be raising chickens, planting vegetables to sell, and finally return to a self-reliant lifestyle. Coralie loves her land, and wishes to stay in Concow, imagining the little sprouts that will begin to bud with the return of Spring. “Keep smiling, Keep going, and never give up,” was the motto she kept in mind while trying to keep motivated after the fire.
Just as Spring comes each year and brings forth a symbol of rebirth and new life, so too, shall hope spring anew with time. The cold of winter awaits for now, but with the support of Tzu Chi volunteers, the love and care conveyed can generate a warmth that is lasting, indeed.