Concow, California, Comes Back to Life Post-Camp Fire

Northwest  |  May 23, 2019
Tzu Chi USA hosts a Buddha Bathing Ceremony at the Yankee Hill Historical Society, built in 1865. Photo by Minjhing Hsieh.

On November 8, 2018, Paradise, California, burned down entirely from the Camp Fire, threatening to take nearby Concow with it. It’s a small town of about 700 residents, and after the Camp Fire struck, residents worried they’d be left behind.

Tzu Chi USA ensured they wouldn’t be.

After having served residents who’d been affected through our Hope Heals campaign at the end of 2018, Tzu Chi volunteers wanted to show their ongoing support more than six months on. On May 18th, Tzu Chi volunteers arrived at Mesilla Valley Schoolhouse to hold a Buddha Bathing Ceremony. This school was built in 1865 with only one classroom. It was the oldest school in Concow and it now serves as the home base of the Yankee Hill Historical Society. The venue listed the ceremony on its event preview board to notify community members about the public event.

The ceremony was led by Tzu Chi volunteer Chiung Huei Liu. She explained the origin and the meaning of Buddha Bathing Ceremony to all guests at the start of the event. Ceremony attendees, regardless of their religion, with their palms together in front of their chest, offered greetings to the Buddha and blessings to those who had suffered from the Camp Fire.

Photo by Pingyao Lee

At the opening ceremony, Tzu Chi Northwest Executive Director Minjhing Hsieh told the audience, “we didn’t know each other before. It’s hard to believe that at this moment, we are standing at the most historically significant place in Concow, like a family. This cause is unbelievable. I’m deeply grateful for your trust in Tzu Chi. I’m also very grateful for all the successful cooperation with so many organizations, St. John’s Church in particular. With joined hands, we will keep you company, care about you, and help you. I want you to know that you are never forgotten. I respect every resident for being resilient throughout the disaster. We will come back. You won’t be alone. This is a great community. Together we will rebuild it, and we will help every survivor be on their feet.”

I want you to know that you are never forgotten… We will come back. You won’t be alone. This is a great community. Together we will rebuild it, and we will help every survivor be on their feet.

It was an awe-inspiring moment, too, Richard Yale, reverend at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chico, CA, led a prayer before the Transfer of Merit. The solemnity, goodness, and brotherhood in the room transcended religions.

Attendees returned a total of 19 bamboo banks, as pictured above, filled with coins and small bills to help pay it forward. Photo by Pingyao Lee.
Rev. Richard Yale of St. John’s Episcopal Church leading a prayer. Photo by Pingyao Lee.

Some residents couldn’t stay for the entire ceremony, but brought their bamboo banks, which they had received from Tzu Chi through its Hope Heals campaign, back and greeted their old Tzu Chi friends. Every bamboo bank was heavy, loaded with their hopes and wishes. That day, 19 bamboo banks were returned to Tzu Chi!

The ceremony itself inspired further generosity. Resident Meralee Cox donated $50 dollars afterwards.

Other residents like Ryan Beabout came around to say hello and thank you to Tzu Chi volunteers. He told us that the cash card Tzu Chi gave him helped him get a fresh start, with some critical daily supplies- including the tent he has been living in since.

Troy Wilmes, too, recalled that the first help he received came in the form of an eco-blanket from Tzu Chi. He said he wants to build some economical and environmentally friendly houses.

Brad Cook, who began volunteering with Tzu Chi through the Camp Fire, has wanted to help his community rise again. He’s done so by inviting friends who share the same philosophy to volunteer, too, with Tzu Chi USA. His youngest recruit is his son, who came to help with registration at the Buddha Day event.

Before, the building that houses the Yankee Hill Historical Society was surrounded by woods. With all surrounding trees burned by the fire, the landmark has miraculously stayed in tact.

Nearly 100 guests attended the ceremony, filling out a small classroom that normally accommodates 40. Though it was crowded, warmth, community, and togetherness were in the air.

After the ceremony, CEO Minjhing Hsieh handed out envelopes and volunteers prepared tea and desserts, inviting residents to sit down and have the chance to talk. During the conversation, resident Rose Butler couldn’t stop crying whenever her children were mentioned. The fire took away their only home. Now she has to live separately from her three daughters and four grandchildren. She remarked on the goodness and kindness of the Tzu Chi volunteers she’d met. Rose told us we’d given her hope.

After the ceremony, resident Michael Brooks called Tzu Chi Northwest to tell them how much he appreciated the event. Tzu Chi, he told us, was among the best organizations he’d encountered in his life. He said he wanted to attend the Buddha Bathing Ceremony in Chico the next day, and join as a volunteer. He was not alone in this feeling. Five more attendees, too, expressed their intention to become Tzu Chi volunteers.

Just as Minjhing said, Tzu Chi volunteers make a promise to come back. Residents at Concow won’t be alone, nor will they be forgotten. Together, we’ll help bring the community back to life.

More News Stories