Written by Christina Chang
Translated by H.B. Qi
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
The Mill Fire ignited in the City of Weed, in Siskiyou County, California, at noon on Friday, September 2, 2022. Influenced by high temperatures and strong winds, the wildfire spread rapidly. The governor declared a state of emergency in Siskiyou County that very night and ordered thousands of people to evacuate their homes. According to official sources, the wildfire caused two fatalities and destroyed 118 structures, including homes. The area’s residents were left to cope with heavy grief over losses of life and property.
Surveying the City of Weed area during their disaster assessment, Tzu Chi volunteers can see the devastation caused by the Mill Fire, which destroyed homes and damaged property. Photos/Andy Chiang
After learning about the severe damages caused by the Mill Fire, Tzu Chi volunteers in Northern California received a list of affected households from their long-time partner, United Way. Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region’s Executive Director, Minjhing Hsieh, then shared, “We hope to bring the care of all our Tzu Chi volunteers to Weed.”
The Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region subsequently held a Mill Fire disaster relief distribution at the Weed Community Center on Sunday, October 9. Eleven volunteers from three locations – San Jose, the Central Valley, and Chico – assembled there and collaborated on providing $29,100 in emergency aid cash cards of benefit to 44 families, comprising 98 individuals. They also offered eco-blankets and other supplies to care for the wildfire survivors.
Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region’s Mill Fire disaster relief distribution brings direct aid to families impacted in the City of Weed, who respond with smiles and grateful tears. Photos/Andy Chiang
Eager to Pay the Love Forward
Cherry Scanlon and Lehel Gazami had lived in Weed for many years, leading a quiet, relaxed life. The couple, who love vintage cars, bought one from the 1930s and drove it from California to Nevada wearing clothes from the era to attend a car show, where they won an award. Cherry and Lehel had no room to park the vintage car at home, so they stored it in Redding, a town about an hour’s drive away. Thanks to this, the Mill Fire did not burn their beloved possession. However, that was the only piece of their property spared from burning to ashes.
The couple recalled what they witnessed the day the blaze ignited nearby in a neighbor’s house. A helicopter arrived on the scene quickly and flew back and forth, dropping fire retardant. It looked as if that had extinguished the fire, but not long after, flames reappeared next to the initial fire location. With little delay, firefighters requested the immediate evacuation of all residents. Cherry and Lehel left in a hurry, driving away in their recreational vehicle as the inferno engulfed their home, and their former peaceful life was gone in an instant.
After receiving Tzu Chi’s financial assistance to help them meet their immediate needs in this crisis, then hearing about Tzu Chi’s missions and the bamboo bank story, Cherry and her husband felt deeply moved and grateful. They responded by putting all their spare change into the bamboo bank on the table, eager to pay the love received forward and help others in their time of need. The couple’s home is next to a hiking trail, and they often chat with people of different nationalities wandering by. “We’ll pass on the spirit of Tzu Chi’s bamboo bank to those walking by to inspire their thought of helping others,” they said.
Upon learning about Tzu Chi’s upcoming aid, some eventual care recipients responded with surprise, even suspicion. When Debra and her husband, also Mill Fire survivors, received a call from a Tzu Chi volunteer inviting them to come to the community center to receive a cash card, they were concerned it was spam. Arriving at the distribution site, they were relieved once they realized that Tzu Chi’s emergency assistance was legitimate and very real.
Tzu Chi volunteer Michelle Tseng patiently explained the history of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation to the couple, from its beginnings in Taiwan to its global expansion, especially in the United States. Finally, when Michelle leaned down to take hold of their hands as she read Master Cheng Yen’s letter of condolences, Debra was already in tears from emotion.
As Michelle gave her a loving hug, a joyful smile gradually replaced the sorrowful expression on Debra’s face, and her husband couldn’t wait to take out all the cash he had on him and add it to the bamboo bank on the table. The spam suspicion turned into a heartwarming scene of mutual gratitude expressed with utmost sincerity.
Sharing Their Stories
Martha McVehee, now 97, moved to Weed from Mississippi with her husband and relatives 68 years ago to work at a lumber mill. It was beyond her imagination to anticipate that the home she had been living in for decades could burn to the ground overnight. She shook her head in despair, muttering how she’ll never recover from this devastating situation.
Martha’s eldest daughter accompanied her to the Weed Community Center for the disaster relief distribution. Amid all the uncertainty, receiving financial assistance and other supplies from Tzu Chi volunteers, who were also there to comfort her, made Martha feel enveloped by love from people around the world who wanted to help.
Jasmine Vongsena lives in Weed with her parents, husband, and two young children, aged one and three. When the Mill Fire burned through their community, her husband was injured as he tried to help a neighbor escape. Luckily, the family and the neighbor evacuated without further mishaps, as the fire destroyed everything around them.
After recovering from his injuries, Jasmine’s husband departed to fight another wildfire, the Mosquito Fire that ignited in Northern California days later, on September 6. Left alone to deal with all the post-disaster demands and trauma, Jasmine was greatly relieved upon receiving Tzu Chi volunteers’ warm care at the distribution site. It felt like the heavy burden on her shoulders was alleviated as she had someone to listen to her woes. With tears in her eyes, Jasmine said, “I’m really grateful that you have come all this way to help us.”
Serving the Community With Attentive Care
Kim Greene, the City of Weed Mayor, accompanied Tzu Chi volunteers during the disaster relief distribution, glad to serve the Mill Fire survivors in the city as well. She helped open the Weed Community Center early in the morning on October 9, and after the distribution was over and volunteers had packed up, she was there to lock up, staying until the very end of the long day.
Jessica Morrison, a Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteer, recently joined the disaster relief team and has already participated in three missions. She was part of the McKinney Fire relief effort with her mother, Suzanne, who is also a Tzu Chi volunteer in the region. “I believe in all of this, so it opened my heart even more,” she said, “Tzu Chi can help disaster survivors, that’s why I became a volunteer.”
Michelle Tseng, a Tzu Chi volunteer from San Jose in Silicon Valley, has participated in many California wildfire relief efforts over the years. Each time, she and her team of fellow volunteers will drive for hours to reach unfamiliar disaster areas and provide assistance and care for survivors impacted by severe damages.
In almost every relief operation, Michelle encounters disaster survivors who feel so moved by the assistance that they donate all their change, adding it to bamboo banks to help others in a similar situation. Some even give their cash cards back to Tzu Chi in the hope of helping more people in need. She recalls each scene of such giving back with emotion.
Wildfires are merciless and can destroy everything we possess overnight. And yet, love, accumulated day by day with each donation to support Tzu Chi USA’s charity and disaster aid, can bring relief and hope in such times of anguish and uncertainty. Your generosity and love truly empower all our missions.