On June 19th, 2016, a wildfire ignited near the town of Potrero, just north of the U.S. and Mexico border, and 18 miles east of the Greater San Diego area.
Fueled by dry brush and relentless heat, the Border Fire spread rapidly, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of local residents. The blaze would not be 100 percent contained until nearly 2 weeks later, and by then it had burned 7,609 acres.
Tzu Chi USA’s disaster response was swift. On June 21st, volunteers from San Diego travelled to El Cajon, a town about 31 miles northwest of Potrero, where the American Red Cross had set up an emergency shelter in the gymnasium of Coches Creek Middle School.
There were about 72 evacuees there when Tzu Chi volunteers arrived, and although the American Red Cross was providing food, water, and even services for pets, since most people hadn’t expected to stay away long when they left their homes, they didn’t bring a change of clothes, enough diapers for their young children, or other essentials.
Tzu Chi volunteers immediately took stock of what each family lacked, and set off to buy the items at a local Walmart. When learning who all the purchases were for, the store manager kindly agreed to donate everything.
Volunteers thoughtfully selected appropriate sizes to match the needs of evacuees at the shelter, and over the next few days, distributed underwear, socks, clothes, diapers for infants and seniors, and female hygiene products.
Several charitable organizations, including the Salvation Army, Cal Fire, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Mountain Health, set up booths near the shelter to provide food, medical care, transportation, financial assistance, and other services to evacuees.
Tzu Chi volunteers helped inform evacuees about these resources, and also attended to their emotional and spiritual wellbeing, even offering a bottle planter class to help ease anxiety and teach about environmental awareness. During the class participants used flowers from volunteers’ gardens to create unique floral arrangements in recycled water bottles, enjoying the calming effects of this meditative activity.
However, the harsh reality of the situation was hard to ignore for long, especially when Cal Fire gave reports on their progress in trying to contain the spreading wildfire.
Tzu Chi began to distribute Cash Cards to evacuees in the shelter on June 24, the sixth day since the start of the Border Fire. In addition to Tzu Chi volunteers, several local volunteers came to assist during the distribution process.
The disaster relief distribution was moved to Potrero Library during the afternoon, and continued there over the next 2 days.
Feeding America and local restaurants were on hand distributing food and providing hot meals for evacuees and first responders.
By the morning of the second day of the distribution at the library, there were over 30 families waiting to be processed for disaster assistance.
The distribution continued for a third day, and ended on June 26. In total, $9,400 in immediate emergency aid was distributed, benefitting 333 people.
During the six days that Tzu Chi volunteers spent offering support and relief to those affected by the Border Fire and evacuated to El Cajon, there were many opportunities for lasting heartfelt connections with aid recipients to be made, or renewed.
Veronica, who was assisted by Tzu Chi in 2007 after she lost everything she owned in the Harris Fire, came to the distribution center to say hello and recharge the bond with volunteers that was created years ago. She also shared her experience to help soothe the distress of others going through similar trials after losing all their material possessions.
After the distributions in June, Tzu Chi volunteers reached out to others who might be in need of assistance due to the Border Fire, and Veronica’s story would continue to help them as well. George and Mira Martinez were referred by Larry Slusher, an emergency aid recipient.
The couple had lost their trailer in the fire, and had no food or water. George called many agencies and organizations for help, but it was all to no avail. By the time Tzu Chi volunteers came to visit the couple and offer aid, they were staying with neighbors.
George was dismayed, and expressed how he felt it was his fault for not being able to protect his home. Tzu Chi volunteer Brother Tenshang then shared Veronica’s story and words of inspiration to help remind George and Mira of what was truly important: Although it was a difficult situation, they were blessed to still have each other..
Volunteers gave the couple blankets, an ornament to wish them safety and peace, a book of Jing Si Aphorisms for moral support, and financial aid. Once everything was said and done, despite their material losses, George remains in good spirits, his main concern truly being the safety and happiness of his beloved partner, Mira.
Catalina also lost her house completely during the Border Fire, and received financial aid along with a blanket and book of Jing Si Aphorisms from Tzu Chi. Catalina was a Tzu Chi aid recipient after fires in 2007, and she was philosophical about her circumstances now. She was about to move in a month, and had been worried about how to handle all her stuff. But now, since she lost everything she owned and all she had left was herself, there was nothing to worry about. Once she gets to Mexico, Catalina plans to start helping others by volunteering with Tzu Chi.
And so the circle of love continues, as aid recipients become the givers. As always during a disaster relief mission, volunteers took time to share the story of Dharma Master Cheng Yen and the humble Bamboo Bank to inspire everyone to practice giving in their daily life. During the 3-day distribution, 49 bamboo banks left in the hands of aid recipients, on their journey to collect love to benefit others in the future.
As for the home visits that were conducted on July 3rd, Tzu Chi volunteers distributed $1,400, benefitting 10 people affected by the Border Fire.