Tzu Chi Breathes New Hope into a Wildfire Survivor’s Life

Northwest  |  April 29, 2022
Rochelle Wight opens the door to her new home for the first time. Photo/Suzanne Morrison

Written by Cody Chan
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

Tears stream down Rochelle Wight’s cheeks as she opens the door to her new mobile home. Rochelle had been living in her car with her pug, Buddy, for the past few months. Before that, she lived with a friend. Following a California wildfire, Rochelle was effectively homeless for over three years. 

Rochelle Wight is a survivor of the Camp Fire that ignited on November 8, 2018, in Butte County, California, a densely forested area. Dry conditions from prolonged drought combined with powerful winds fueled and propelled the blaze to spread swiftly and burn 153,336 acres before it was over.

Rochelle’s home and the rest of her neighborhood had once stood within those wooded acres, and suddenly all that remained were charred ruins.

I’ve had some dark days where I didn’t know if I was going to make it, and I didn’t want to get up, and I didn’t want to move forward.

But Rochelle reminded herself, “Don’t give up hope. You just have to keep pushing forward. Eventually, you’ll get there.” And, with support from members of the Tzu Chi community, Rochelle held on until March 2022, when she received a 5th wheel trailer to live in that brought a renewed sense of hope that her life would finally return to normalcy. 

On March 18, 2022, Tzu Chi Disaster Case Managers Suzanne Morrison and Baba Kauna Mujamal traveled over 200 miles from Chico, California, to Klamath Falls, Oregon, to meet Rochelle Wight. Suzanne and Baba have been in contact with her for some time, but this would be their first time meeting in person.

Tzu Chi Disaster Case Managers Suzanne Morrison and Baba Kauna Mujamal follow the 5th wheel trailer during its transport from Medford to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where Rochelle Wight awaits. Photo/Suzanne Morrison

Over several months, the Tzu Chi Disaster Case Managers procured a living situation for Rochelle. With the help of charity funds from Tzu Chi, Rochelle has now been blessed with this spacious 5th wheel trailer to call home. 

The trailer includes a kitchen so that Rochelle can cook, a bathroom with a shower, and a bedroom with a queen-sized bed. Compared to her car, Rochelle and her pug Buddy will be able to live comfortably for the first time since the Camp Fire.

Rochelle Wight (middle) and Baba Kauna Mujamal (right) enjoy a moment with John Jolly (left), who transported the 5th wheel trailer. Photo/Suzanne Morrison

Before the Camp Fire, Rochelle, her fiance, Matt, and Buddy, their pug, had lived happily in a mobile home in Concow, California. Originally they were residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, but they moved to Concow for a more relaxed environment. Unfortunately, their peaceful circumstances didn’t last, as the Camp Fire destroyed their entire community.

While the Camp Fire is the deadliest wildfire in California’s history to date, Rochelle and Matt were able to escape to safety, saving their dog as well. They then jumped from motel to motel yet somehow managed to make ends meet. Alas, another tragedy lay ahead for the couple.

Matt had fallen ill a few months earlier that year, and then, not long after the fire, he passed away on December 5, 2018. After this string of devastating events, Rochelle still finds the strength to keep moving forward. She decided to go to Klamath Falls, Oregon, for better job opportunities. Arriving there, she lived in her car with her dog and worked two part-time jobs. 

Rochelle first found Tzu Chi when she diligently searched for help in a directory of organizations that assist fire survivors in California. Suzanne, who became one of her case managers, notes that Rochelle is one of the hardest working wildfire survivors that she has met. “In her email, she even wrote that she was willing to volunteer,” Suzanne recounts.

Since discovering Tzu Chi, Rochelle has learned more about its missions and activities by watching videos on the website, which have inspired her heart. Witnessing the kind acts of Tzu Chi volunteers has also motivated her, and she plans to volunteer herself and pay the love and care forward.

I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make it, to be a productive member of society. I’m so grateful, and I’m going to give back.

Wildfires are a recurring catastrophe in California, and Tzu Chi volunteers are always ready to provide emergency disaster relief and long-term aid in some cases, such as that which Rochelle Wight received. With your love and support, we can shine the light of hope after tragedy strikes and set families on the road to full recovery.

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