Coming to the Aid of Bobcat Fire Survivors in Southern California

National Headquarters  |  November 24, 2020
Tzu Chi volunteers distribute blankets and essential supplies to Bobcat fire survivors at a Local Assistance Center on October 3. Photo/James Huang

Written by Michael Tseng, Jennifer Chien
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Littlerock and Sun Village, two neighboring communities east of Palmdale in the Antelope Valley of Southern California’s Los Angeles County, were severely affected by the Bobcat Fire, which ignited on September 6, 2020. As the wildfire blazed through the central San Gabriel Mountains in and around Angeles National Forest, it would burn over 115,750 acres by the time it was 100% contained on November 2.

The 2020 Bobcat Fire leaves some communities in the Antelope Valley of Los Angeles County in ashes. Photo/James Huang

The Bobcat Fire was just one of at least 27 major wildfires burning in California during September 2020, and the battle for its full containment, manned by 572 firefighters, was long and treacherous. The rugged terrain, which complicated access to the frontlines, and triple-digit temperatures, created difficult and dangerous conditions.

According to the Los Angeles County Fire Department, crews also faced erratic fire behavior. Due to the convergence of all these factors, they could only extinguish the flames with firefighting helicopters. However, dense smoke reduced visibility and increased the height at which they had to fly, increasing the peril in firefighting efforts.

A riverbed left scorched by the Bobcat Fire. Photo/James Huang

One of Los Angeles County's Largest Wildfires

The Bobcat Fire would go on record as one of the largest wildfires in the history of Los Angeles County. After it ignited, a large amount of smoke and ash was dispersed into the air, driven by California’s infamous Santa Ana winds, rendering the Los Angeles sky a fierce red.

As it spread, moving south at one point, it threatened several communities in the northern San Gabriel Valley, including Monrovia, Bradbury, Altadena, Duarte, and Pasadena. Then, moving northeast through the San Gabriel Mountains, it caused extensive damage in the Antelope Valley farther north, with communities near Palmdale hard hit. A total of 230 buildings were scorched, including 120 residential homes.

Tzu Chi volunteers visit the burn sites and record wildfire damages. Photo/James Huang

When James Huang and a team of Tzu Chi volunteers first assessed damages in the area, instead of pretty West Coast flowers and trees adorning the yards of homes, they found a wasteland of ash, with only pieces of stone where walls once stood remaining.

I saw a lot of fire and smoke along the way and many burnt houses on the road. Some homes have been entirely burned down, very sad. There are trees around, and on both sides of the river bed, they’re all burnt too. It’s really heartbreaking to see this kind of situation.

As James thought about the area’s residents, most now housed in temporary shelters, not knowing where to go next, his heart filled with sadness  – resonating with the distress and sorrow the displaced survivors were surely feeling.

The remains of houses incinerated by the Bobcat wildfire. Photo/James Huang
Not much is left of a beautifully decorated yard. Photo/James Huang

Can’t Afford to EatBringing Love and Care to Residents Who Became Homeless Overnight

The Los Angeles County Government set up a Local Assistance Center (LAC) in Palmdale, from where the City and NGOs could help those affected by the Bobcat Fire. Tzu Chi USA and the American Red Cross (ARC) were among the organizations there to provide disaster relief.

Tzu Chi USA joins Los Angeles County's efforts to provide disaster relief at the Local Assistance Center set up in Palmdale. Photo/James Huang

James Huang, who had assessed the devastation in the disaster area, was part of the team of volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters Region, eager to participate in the aid initiative. “Today, we came to the Local Assistance Center, hoping to do our part for the residents. To help them with what we can, so they’ll be on their way to recovery,” he said.

As volunteer Curtis Hsing – in charge of emergency relief – explained, ARC had invited Tzu Chi USA to provide timely assistance to wildfire survivors leaving a temporary shelter. Fire officials had evacuated residents, many of whom ended up in a shelter set up by ARC at a local hotel, but these interim accommodations were about to end on October 3.

However, the Bobcat Fire had destroyed some residents’ homes, and they had nowhere to go after leaving ARC’s temporary shelter. Tzu Chi volunteers immediately prepared cash cards, Tzu Chi’s eco-blankets, Jing Si Instant Rice, and other supplies to resolve some of the displaced survivors’ most urgent needs.

Then, on October 2 and 3, volunteers set up at the LAC and the hotel shelter. They interviewed evacuees to learn about their needs and distributed disaster relief for 11 households.

Volunteers distribute essential supplies and introduce Tzu Chi’s missions in the lobby of a hotel serving as an American Red Cross emergency shelter. Photo/James Huang
Volunteer Curtis Hsing gives an eco-blanket to a wildfire survivor. Photo/James Huang

Unexpected Help Brings a Ray of Hope

When volunteers provided disaster aid to one young couple – Stephanie Meredith and her partner, who suffered severe damages to their house – they introduced Tzu Chi’s origins in Taiwan and missions as well. In response, Stephanie told them that her father and grandmother were both born in Taiwan and expressed how touched she was to see Tzu Chi USA offering aid to Bobcat Fire survivors.

We really appreciate all the help. We will return the favor sometime in the future, and we will help other people as well.

Stephanie Meredith (first left) and her partner receive Tzu Chi USA’s Bobcat Fire disaster relief at the Palmdale Local Assistance Center. Photo/James Huang

For some, Tzu Chi’s aid shone a ray of unexpected hope at a supremely difficult time. That’s how it felt for Mia Morgan, who held the eco-blanket she’d just received tightly as she shared her story with volunteers. Having found a cherished plot of land in an unpolluted mountainous area, Mia had spent all her savings on building a dream home, now lost to the Bobcat Fire.

Mia Morgan (left) received Tzu Chi USA’s aid after losing her home to the Bobcat Fire. Photo/James Huang

She reluctantly recalled how she had lovingly decorated her small but beautiful house, and now, all she had left in terms of worldly possessions was her car. To add to their misery, after leaving the hotel, Mia and her family had no place to go. They would be temporarily sleeping in the car, making the blanket and Jing Si Instant Rice from Tzu Chi a most welcome help – not to mention the cash card that would help them navigate this challenging time.

The American Red Cross had referred David Fallavollita to Tzu Chi for help. He carefully filled out the application form for emergency relief and listened attentively to a volunteer’s introductions on preparing Tzu Chi’s Jing Si Instant Rice. Then, when the volunteers gave him a cash card with an amount he hardly expected, he exclaimed with emotion, “I just want to thank you for everything you have done. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for your help.”

David Fallavollita (left) didn’t expect Tzu Chi to help him out with so much. Photo/James Huang

Tzu Chi gave me a blanket. I got rice. They provided me 600, which I was very, very appreciative of because I did not expect that. And I’m very grateful for that! And I do plan on returning the favor out to anybody else out there who needs help.

From Strangers to Friends

As is the norm during Tzu Chi USA’s disaster relief missions, when care recipients first arrive, some may be wary of Tzu Chi volunteers, strangers representing an organization they usually don’t know. Yet by the time the disaster relief procedure is complete, the strangers have become friends, who leave a lasting impression in each other’s hearts.

By supporting our missions, you can be part of Tzu Chi USA’s journey of providing love and care across the United States and beyond, especially during times of greatest need. While the path to full recovery after the Bobcat Fire may be long for many families, now they know that Tzu Chi USA is there to accompany them along the way, ready with aid and a helping hand.

Kindness helps to provide peace and happiness. Compassion serves to relieve suffering and benefit all living beings.

More News Stories