Written by Christina Chang
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
Before the Christmas of 2021, Tzu Chi volunteers Michelle Liang and Shunda Hwang, who live in Portland, Oregon, drove their car south towards Bly, heading deep into the mountains with towering pine forests covered in snow along their path. Packages of supplies intended to bring “peace of mind and blessings” to the survivors of a recent wildfire covered the back seat. As the windshield wipers struggled to push away heavily falling snow and the car climbed higher and higher in altitude, Michelle thought to herself, “This is really ‘delivering coal in winter.’”
A Paradise Burned to the Ground
In August 2021, the Bootleg Fire ignited out in the remote mountains of southern Oregon. At the time, 161 families lived in Bly, a small unincorporated town in Klamath County, which would be one of the most affected areas. Bly is a beautiful place far away from the hustle and bustle, with residents living in various parts of the mountains. Most were self-reliant, preferring to depend on local resources. For them, this was an idyllic paradise: Until everything changed.
The relentless fire burned the residents’ homes built over the years, leaving only charred pieces of tile and twisted metal remains. What made the destruction even more overwhelming is that due to the remoteness of the mountainous disaster area, insurance coverage wasn’t available to the survivors to rebuild their homes. The former paradise was now in ashes, with damaged roads and numerous challenges to rebuilding and recovery.
Doing What Needs to Be Done Now
Bly is about 300 miles from Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region’s Portland Service Center, nearly six hours away by car. After the fire, upon obtaining information from ORVOAD, the Oregon branch of NVOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), and Relief Angels, a local emergency relief non-profit, Tzu Chi volunteers in Portland arranged two successive relief distributions in late August and September.
Each time, the volunteers made the long trip to this isolated town, which the postal service doesn’t even serve and fire hazard insurance won’t cover, to deliver timely aid to suffering residents who lost their homes and property. But it didn’t stop there. Since then, Tzu Chi Portland volunteers have continued caring for people in the Bly area. Through ongoing cooperation with the Relief Angels and other local agencies, Tzu Chi has helped the Bootleg Fire survivors overcome many obstacles on their challenging path to full recovery and looked out for them as the first frigid and brutal winter since the disaster approached.
When volunteer Michelle Liang looks back, she shares that although the Portland Service Center doesn’t have that many volunteers and they all live far from this Bootleg Fire disaster area, whenever asked for help, the whole team never thought, “Why us?” Instead, everyone only tried to determine the best and fastest course of action.
Dharma Master Cheng Yen said in her Jing Si Aphorism, “When those who suffer cannot get out, those who are blessed should get in.” These words inspired the Portland volunteer team to overcome all obstacles. As Michelle recalls, all she thought was, “You do what you should do.” This courage accompanies all the volunteers as they fearlessly move forward on the road of continuous care after this disaster.
Making Water Available
After the Bootleg Fire, the first problem the survivors in Bly encountered when they returned to their homes was the water supply, which is essential for life. Before the wildfire, those living in the mountains had used solar power for electricity and wells they had dug for water. However, the blaze destroyed all energy facilities and contaminated the water source in the disaster area. Those who returned anyway and aimed to purchase clean water faced difficulties, too, such as transportation time and costs, let alone the financial burden of buying water.
When the Portland Service Center volunteers learned of the urgent need for water, they immediately coordinated with the Relief Angels to help solve the problem. Relief Angels volunteers contacted the local government and water company and asked them to provide a tap in an easily accessible downhill location. The survivors living higher up in more remote parts of the mountains could access clean and cheap tap water by coming there, and the Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region took care of the water bill payment according to metered usage.
At the same time, to avoid abuse of the water resource and protect the source for mountain residents to use according to their needs and timing, Tzu Chi volunteers asked for help from several local community volunteers, who kept a key to the tap. Thus, with the disaster survivors, volunteer groups, and government agencies collaborating, they successfully resolved the short-term water supply issue.
Delivering Warmth in Winter
With the rainy season in late November, Bootleg Fire survivors’ need for water eased. However, concern about having enough heating equipment to withstand the winter’s cold came next. The disaster area is at an altitude of 5,000 feet, and snow and ice in late fall are not uncommon.
The mountain survivors received a newsletter from the Portland Service Center before Thanksgiving and felt the volunteers’ warmth. Many replied that while they previously could heat their homes by a fireplace during the icy season, with the destruction or damages incurred and no more solar power supply, surviving the long, cold winter was now their biggest worry.
Without delay, Tzu Chi volunteers contacted the local fuel company in cooperation with Valerie O’dai, a Relief Angels contact, and ordered fuel at a discounted price. The fuel supplier coordinated with a transportation company and, with the help of local volunteers, transported a large amount of heating fuel up the mountains so the survivors could stay warm that winter.
At the Portland Service Center, Tzu Chi volunteer King Leong Lee coordinates with various Tzu Chi partners during mid-and long-term care initiatives. In this mission, as in others, he stressed that the principle of “seizing the moment” is the way to deal with any situation.
Providing Supplies With Blessings
When responding to Tzu Chi volunteers’ care, the Bootleg Fire survivors mentioned another looming challenge. In the past, many raised ducks and geese and produced agricultural products in the mountains, and the proceeds from sales were enough to support winter living. But due to the fire’s destruction, they lost the possibility of such activities with the financial resources they provided.
While solving the heating issue, the Portland Service Center promptly mobilized its volunteers and also community members to help prepare packages of supplies to deliver to the survivors before Christmas to help them during the winter and bring some holiday cheer.
Tzu Chi volunteers and Portland community members prepare packages of supplies for Bootleg Fire survivors in Bly. Photo/Michelle Liang
Each package contained winter socks, hand warmers, scarves, oranges and apples (in Chinese culture, oranges symbolize good luck and happiness, while apples are a wish for peace), holiday cookies, snacks for kids to help them feel joyful during their first Christmas after the disaster, and more. They also included cards and Master Cheng Yen’s Jing Si Aphorisms to help soothe the spirit. Tzu Chi volunteers named the filled bags “peace of mind and blessing supply packs” to boost the intention behind the gift.
Relief Angels volunteer Vera Lee, responsible for direct contact with the survivors, raised small Christmas trees with the people in the vicinity of Bly, which added to the festive atmosphere. Seeing Tzu Chi volunteers Michelle Liang and Shunda Hwang arrive in town with forty gift packs, she changed her mind about the initial plan to deliver the gifts to the hotel where many survivors had found temporary shelter by herself. She invited Michelle and Shunda to come along to offer the packages with their blessings in person.
The three volunteers knocked on the hotel room doors one by one to deliver the gifts. Accepting the packages, the survivors got emotional, feeling touched that the volunteers had thought about them. The visit brought hope for the future. Eric, one of the survivors, showed them the bamboo bank in his room, the one he got from Tzu Chi when receiving a cash card soon after the Bootleg Fire. He told them, “I put in one coin daily. One day I’ll bring the filled bamboo bank back to you.”
Joy, a survivor who had returned to live in the mountains, drove down with her husband and daughter, who’s in middle school, to meet the Tzu Chi volunteers when she learned they were coming that day. The family thanked them for their phone calls and for delivering the gifts.
While wildfires are merciless, there is love in the world, and spring comes after winter. There may be a few more seasons before the disaster area in Bly’s mountains will return to its former appearance. Yet, with the support of people’s love, Bootleg Fire survivors have the strength to move forward together and recover the beautiful paradise they once had, despite all the challenges along the way.
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