Meeting North Complex Fire Evacuees in Oroville, CA

Northwest  |  October 28, 2020
Tzu Chi Northwest volunteers provide meaningful aid and comfort to those suffering as a result of recent California wildfires. Photo/Huanxun Chan

Written by Huanxun Chan
Translated by Diana Chang 
Edited by Dilber Shatursun

While sports and fitness programs have been on pause through the pandemic, the Oroville Gymnastics Sports Academy in Oroville, CA, has had an evolution of sorts: it was chosen to house the Local Assistance Center (or LAC) after the North Complex Fire. Here, residents are able to seek resources from local organizations after wildfire, one of them being Tzu Chi Northwest. There, volunteers would meet with residents and hear their stories about the loss and resilience they experienced through the fire.

One woman, in her 60s, had a landline only and no cell phone. After the fire broke out, her daughter scrambled to search for her when her mother had evacuated. Four days later, the family finally reunited. The daughter got her mother a cell phone immediately, but explained that she needed to learn how to use it. Tzu Chi volunteers assisted this woman with her online application for wildfire relief from Tzu Chi Northwest this fall.

Tzu Chi volunteers set up clear barriers on the tables to reassure the health and safety of care recipients during their conversations. Photo/Huanxun Chan

In order to stay safe and prevent cross transmission of the coronavirus at the Local Assistance Center, volunteers and survivors can only enter if wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Plus, each table was outfitted with a transparent plastic barrier to minimize the chance of catching infectious droplets in the air.

Tzu Chi Chico’s Bobie Rae Jones graciously offers a package of Jing Si Instant Rice to a family. Photo/Huanxun Chan

Because of the fires, many have been evacuated from their homes; many with little notice. While some have taken shelter with relatives, others have been left homeless and otherwise without stable shelter, where they have no gas or electricity. Some recipients received Da Ai Technology eco-blankets – crafted from warm and fuzzy textiles made from recycled plastic bottles – and Jing Si Instant Rice, which could be prepared with hot or cold water.

Frank & Barbara Burcio arrive at the LAC. Photo/Huanxun Chan

At the distribution, we met Frank & Barbara Burcio from Berry Creek. Frank had heard from the neighborhood watch that the North Complex Fire was spreading and began to understand the gravity of the situation. He drove out to an intersection a quarter mile from his home and saw that fire trucks and police cars were everywhere.

“I drove back home and told her, ‘Babe, we got to leave now,’” Frank said. Twenty minutes later, they left with their essentials and two cats. They had lived at their Berry Creek home for 17 years.

Now, they are staying with relatives in Wheatland, CA. Barbara tearfully reminisced, “we knew some lovely people up there. It was a tight community.” Frank added that,”we had 17 good years – so we don’t know what the future is going to hold. If we go back, we don’t go back, we don’t know yet, we haven’t made that decision.”

Pat Cornelius receives help from Tzu Chi for the second time after wildfires in California. Photo/Huanxun Chan

Another care recipient included Pat Cornelius. Arriving in his cowboy hat, he sat with Tzu Chi Chico’s Baba Kauna Mujamal. “In the Camp Fire, I lost 5 cars,” he explained of his experience in 2018 with wildfire; “[In] this one I only lost one.”

In 1974, Pat moved to Paradise, CA, and lived there for nearly 45 years. Two years ago, the Camp Fire destroyed his home. Pat then moved to a temporary community set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and just four months ago, he’d finally found a suitable place to live in Berry Creek. Although it was small, it was warm and comfortable.

“The previous tenant left everything for me, they left tools and a lot of other stuff because they heard I had nothing,” Pat explained. Little did he know that wildfire would strike again.

Pat looked down at the blankets Tzu Chi volunteers were distributing. He told Baba, “this brings back many memories.” Pat said that he could feel Tzu Chi volunteers’ love and care and that it brought him some comfort. Now, he’s in Chico, CA – taking in his blessings, as he tells us, one day at a time.

You guys really do care. It's not just a job for you, you extend the warmth out of your heart to people.

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