Coming to the Aid of California’s Oak Fire Survivors Who Lost Their Homes

Northwest  |  August 24, 2022
Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteers provide disaster relief to Oak Fire survivors in Mariposa County, California, on August 14, 2022. Photo/ Kelly Liu

Written by Christina Chang, Kelly Liu
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

In the steaming summer of 2022, tourists flocked to Mariposa County in California for a short break before heading into Yosemite National Park, a world-famous attraction about 40 minutes away. Meanwhile, intense summer winds from California’s Central Valley lapped at the tall trees of mountain forests, drought-stricken for years. No one imagined that a never-before-seen wildfire would soon arrive at this famous tourist destination, moving swiftly and ferociously.

On Friday, July 22, 2022, the Oak Fire ignited after fierce winds fueled a spark in the woods. By Saturday morning, the wildfire had destroyed ten residential and commercial buildings, and the blaze spread rapidly, engulfing many residential homes. The disaster triggered an evacuation of more than 6,000 residents, about a third of the County’s population. Before it was 98% contained, the Oak Fire had burned over 19,000 acres, destroying 193 structures. 

The Oak Fire causes severe destruction in the hardest-hit areas in Mariposa County, California. Photos/Junqin Chen

Tzu Chi volunteers visited the Oak Fire disaster area to assess damages and survivors’ needs. Then, at the request of Mariposa County, Tzu Chi set up a booth at the Local Assistance Center from August 1 to 3. There, Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteers from the service centers in Modesto and Fresno jointly cared for the disaster-affected residents and helped them register for assistance.

Tzu Chi volunteers assess damages in areas hardest hit by the Oak Fire to evaluate survivors’ needs. Photo/ Yingli Yang

On Sunday, August 14, 2022, a team of Tzu Chi volunteers from Modesto and Fresno went to the Senior Activity Center in Mariposa County to begin providing disaster relief for Oak Fire survivors. They distributed $7,800 in cash cards as emergency relief, benefiting 15 families comprising 31 individuals.

Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteers assemble at the Senior Activity Center in Mariposa County on August 14 to provide the first Oak Fire cash card distribution. Photo/Kelly Liu

Homes Burned to the Ground

Every family that came to receive Tzu Chi’s disaster aid had a harrowing story to share about how they lost their home in the Oak Fire. As they handed out the cash cards, the volunteer team listened attentively with genuine sympathy and care, providing spiritual support alongside material aid.

Tzu Chi volunteers listen attentively as Oak Fire survivors share their disaster stories during the distribution on August 14. Photo/Kelly Liu

Becky and her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, lived in a modest trailer in a small Mariposa County town. Becky’s life of caring for a patient was already exhausting and challenging. Then, life was unexpectedly turned upside down when the Oak Fire burned everything the couple had. To make matters worse, Becky’s husband couldn’t adapt to a strange environment, so she had to park their car near the site of the original residence, and the two of them lived in it.  

After that, the County government arranged for them to move into a nearby motel, but they could only stay temporarily until mid-August. When Becky told Tzu Chi volunteers about their displacement during this period, she couldn’t hold back her tears and stop the intense feeling of sadness as she thought about all the torment and pressure. 

When Tzu Chi volunteers gave Becky a cash card and read Master Cheng Yen’s letter of condolences about the Oak Fire survivors’ current suffering, she was deeply touched and blurted emotionally, “This money is already a great help to us. But I’m even more moved by receiving this letter of care.” 

Becky listens as a volunteer tells her about Master Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi's founding story. Photo/Kelly Liu

Becky couldn’t help hugging the volunteers to express her profound gratitude. When leaving, she took the initiative to take two bamboo banks, planning to give back love daily. When she got on the bus and waved goodbye, she beamed a long-lost smile as bright as the summer sunshine.

Jenny is a single mother with an eleven-year-old daughter. On the day of the fire, she went to work, and her little girl stayed at her grandmother’s house. Jenny and her daughter were lucky not to have been home, as the Oak Fire left their house and everything they owned in ashes. Jenny pointed at her clothes and said helplessly, “These are the only clothes I have.”

Jenny and her daughter are now living in a friend’s RV. The little girl is about to start school, but Jenny still hasn’t found a place to settle. She can’t find a suitable place to rent in a short time because options are few in the small town where she has a job, and her child attends school. Fortunately, the cash card from Tzu Chi will cover some of their expenses during this unsettling period. Jenny thanked Tzu Chi volunteers again and again for the timely care and assistance.

Oak Fire survivor Jenny is a single mother who is agonized by the lack of a permanent residence that can meet the needs of her work and her child's schooling. Photo/Kelly Liu

Dale is an artist who chose to live close to Yosemite National Park because he liked to go hiking with his friends there. The sudden fire destroyed not only his home but also all of his paintings. When Dale received a message from Tzu Chi, an unknown charity organization offering emergency cash card assistance, he couldn’t help but search for information online before the day of disaster relief distribution. 

After browsing through the Tzu Chi USA website, Dale was amazed at the selfless love that Tzu Chi volunteers give to those in need around the world, and he was particularly impressed by the story of how the bamboo banks pool people’s love. When he received his cash card, Dale told the Tzu Chi volunteers, “I’m happy to save money to help others, and I’m willing to share the bamboo bank story with my neighbors.”

Artist Dale lost his home and all of his paintings to the fire but is still willing to give back to the world with a bamboo bank which came with Tzu Chi's emergency assistance. Photo/Kelly Liu

Nicolas is a young man who has loved the wilderness and camping since childhood. He originally lived in San Francisco with his brother. Yet, he wasn’t used to a bustling urban environment and moved to a small town in Mariposa County neighboring Yosemite National Park, where he bought land and built a house. 

Sadly, the unexpected fire destroyed all of Nicolas’ hard work. Fortunately, he is always positive and healthy and was not discouraged. He saw the current needs of the disaster area and decided that while he would stay and rebuild his own home, he would also help other survivors in the community return to their regular lives. 

Therefore, when Nicolas received his cash card and listened to Tzu Chi volunteers share Master Cheng Yen’s missions and the history of the founding of Tzu Chi, he happily said, “I agree with Tzu Chi’s philosophy. Material life is not the most important thing in life; the most important thing is to be altruistic in life.”

Disaster survivor Nicolas uses cell phone photos to show the volunteers the extent of damage in his neighborhood after the Oak Fire. Photo/ Kelly Liu

Learning From Each Other

Tzu Chi’s disaster relief distributions offer a mutual opportunity to learn from one another’s life views and experiences. This occasion was no different as both volunteers serving that day, and care recipients could gain new perspectives.

An Oak Fire survivor reads about Tzu Chi's missions and philosophy of compassion in action while a volunteer prepares his cash card. Photo/Kelly Liu

Andrina Fonseca, one of the Tzu Chi volunteers from Fresno, was impressed by the resilience of the survivor families. She remarked that although they lost everything, most of them chose to face it positively. “The relentless fires remind us to be grateful for all situations, bad and good; all situations teach us a lesson, which is how to take advantage of them to become a better person. That is entirely up to us, how we view it.”

Through publications, Tzu Chi volunteer Andrina Fonseca illustrates Tzu Chi's missions and activities in the United States and worldwide. Photo/Kelly Liu

Tzu Chi volunteer Yuexia Chen, from Modesto, learned that although the Oak Fire survivors suffered heavy losses, those who had lived in the mountains amid natural surroundings for a long time were rarely depressed, nor were they complaining or worried about the future. Instead, many of them were upbeat, thinking about how to rebuild their homes as soon as possible. Yuexia drew wisdom from this. And the Tzu Chi team hoped the survivors also gained new insights that day about the power of giving and love.

Tzu Chi volunteer Yuexia Chen explains the story of Tzu Chi’s bamboo banks, which collect love from the world. Photo/Kelly Liu

Drought conditions in the Western United States persist, intensified by climate change. Fueled by the hot and dry weather, the wildfire season is an increasingly terrifying period for people who reside there. Tzu Chi USA volunteers in the region are vigilant and mobilize relief promptly, yet your love and support are what empowers our capacity to help those impacted by wildfires. We invite you to join hands and hearts with us on this mission of escalating emergency.

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