Overcoming Wildfire Tragedies in Napa: Remembrance and Rebirth from the Ashes

Northwest  | September 16, 2020
Almost all the mobile homes in the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa community in Napa, California, were destroyed by the LNU Lightning Complex Fires in August 2020. Photo / Renee Liu

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Penny Liu
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

“Everything means something.” said 65-year-old Judy, standing in front of her destroyed mobile home as she looked at the few belongings recovered from the ashes. Though burned and not likely salvageable, she was still grateful she had a few mementos to keep memories alive.

Judy lived at the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa community on the edge of Lake Berryessa in Northern California’s Napa County – famous wine country. Because of its proximity to nearby mountains, there were frequent wildfires during the yearly dry wildfire season. This community survived the 2017 North Bay Fires but could not escape the destruction from the Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit, LNU Lightning Complex Fires.

There were nearly 70 residents in this community. Out of 55 mobile homes, only four survived the blaze – all the others reduced to ash. Fortunately, the residents evacuated in time, so lives were not lost, and no one suffered any injury. Napa County arranged for everyone to stay in nearby hotels temporarily.

Extreme temperatures during the fierce wildfire melt metal roofs, reducing most of the mobile houses to layers of ash. Photo / Judy Liao

After being notified of the destruction at this community, Tzu Chi USA volunteers arrived to assess the damages on September 10, 2020.  In addition to helping these residents register for financial assistance on the Tzu Chi USA website, they also provided Tzu Chi cloth masks and offered care and support.

Destructions at Lake Berryessa

Tzu Chi volunteers Judy Liao and Kitty Lu, alongside documentation staff member Renee Liu, traveled for about two hours from San Jose to Lake Berryessa. The serene lake lies at the foot of mountains, but given the charred remains of forests nearby, beautiful lake and mountain scenery no longer exists.

As the team approached the lake, it passed a doe covered with soot leading her fawn as she searched for food, while a panicky blackened wild wolf ran away on a lame back leg. With this fire, Lake Berryessa lost its tranquil beauty, as terrified wildlife escaped down the mountains. Residents at the mobile villa community lost their homes, as black ash buried the beautiful past, obliterating everyone’s hopes for the future.

The beautiful serene scenery surrounding Lake Berryessa no longer exists. Thick smoke from the wildfires fills the air around the lake. Photo / Renee Liu

Helplessness in the Face of Loss

When the Tzu Chi USA team arrived at the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa site, they met George (real name withheld for privacy), leasing manager for the community. George and his wife Rebecca (real name also withheld for privacy) are both immigrants who had lived a simple and quiet life here: Until the 2020 wildfire season changed everything.

George was reluctant to speak to visitors or the media, perhaps because he’s still trying to process this sudden calamity. Maybe he’s frustrated at the slow response to help people and insurance companies’ refusal to cover mobile homes, or feeling helpless looking at his home turned to ash, or simply exhausted from this wildfire’s torments.

After the volunteers explained that the purpose of the visit was to help residents register for financial assistance from Tzu Chi USA, George shared that he didn’t want to appear in front of the camera because he didn’t want his family in Europe to worry about him. He then guided the team to where they could meet some of the residents who had come back to inspect the remains of their homes, thus helping the volunteers grasp the full extent of the wildfire survivors’ situation and essential needs.

The remains of homes in Napa’s Spanish Flat Mobile Villa community, the vast majority of which were destroyed by the LNU Lightning Complex Fires. Photos / Kitty Lu

Memories Layered Within the Ash

After her husband passed away a few years ago, Judy lived alone in a mobile home with her cats. When the wildfire was closing in, she was the last person to leave the community because she insisted on bringing her cats. In the end, three firefighters pulled her away and persuaded her to leave immediately.

Sadly, Judy could not save her cats. When she returned to the site where her home once stood, she hoped to salvage something from the ashes – anything to help bring memories of her husband and cats more vividly to life. 

65-year-old Judy is dazed and sad as she surveys the burnt remains of her home. Photo / Judy Liao

A young former neighbor who had moved away from this community took a day off from her work to come with her father to help Judy clean up. When the three of them pushed the fallen roof aside, everything that had been inside Judy’s home reappeared, yet it was charred or now ash. “This was where I wanted to stay for the rest of my life,” Judy exclaimed with great sadness.

A former neighbor took a day off from work to come with her father and help Judy clean up. Photo / Judy Liao

Searching through the rubble, Judy found a few charred coins, pieces of broken dishes, a damaged electric toothbrush, and a photograph, its corners burnt.

Judy looks for mementos to salvage from the ashes after wildfires destroyed her home. Photo / Judy Liao

Whatever she found was unusable, yet Judy kept it because these were not just objects; they were part of her everyday existence then, a life now only etched in memory. These burnt and broken scraps are the only things left to remind Judy of what used to be, in some way, helping to soothe her sense of loss and loneliness.

Dreams Gone Up in Smoke

Rebecca (real name withheld for privacy) immigrated to the United States from the Philippines 15 years ago. Like her husband, George, she didn’t want to appear on camera either, hoping to protect her family from knowing the extent of the couple’s current hardship. When the volunteers first saw Rebecca, she was alone and had knelt on the ground to do something. But what is there to do, when only ash remains of your former home?

Although Rebecca seemingly didn’t want to be disturbed in the middle of whatever she was doing, a volunteer approached gently and gave her a cloth mask and information about registering for financial assistance. Sensing the volunteer’s sincerity in helping her, Rebecca opened up and began talking about her experiences and feelings.

She showed photos on her phone, revealing her interests in cooking and gardening. Life at the mobile home park had been by no means luxurious, but it was fulfilling. And now, this devastating fire had taken everything she worked for in this country away. In a single day, all her dreams had gone up in smoke.

Tzu Chi volunteer Judy Liao listens as Rebecca shares her feelings at a tragic moment in her life. Photo / Renee Liu
Rebecca shows the volunteers a photo of her garden before it was lost in the flames. Photo / Judy Liao

After the fire, the process of applying for assistance was not smooth. Although the government did provide a list of hotels where they could stay temporarily, it often changed during the past month, and the offer was to end on September 14.

The Spanish Flat Mobile Villa community residents did not know of any additional forms of assistance to follow. If other aid was available, Rebecca told the volunteers that she hoped the application process would be simplified so everyone could begin cleaning up without delay.

Hoping for a Rebirth of This Community

The damage assessment trip was Tzu Chi volunteer Kitty Lu’s first visit to a disaster zone. She said, “Compared to looking at photos and videos, what I saw with my own eyes made a much bigger impact. These residents lost everything. It reminded me to cherish what I have and be respectful of the power of nature.”

Tzu Chi volunteer Kitty Lu feels reminded to cherish what she has after joining a disaster assessment mission for the first time. Photo / Renee Liu

As Kitty looked around the charred mobile home park, she saw residents’ excitement when they found a piece of a photograph; she also found that seedlings were sprouting up from the ashes, bringing signs of life returning among the debris.

Seedlings sprout up from the ashes, bringing signs of life returning. Photo / Kitty Lu

The tender sprouts represent hope. Their appearance encourages people not to give up, but continue to forge ahead with courage. Along the way, Tzu Chi volunteers will support them as they muster the strength they need to complete the road to full recovery from this wildfire disaster. And then, the beautiful scenery surrounding Lake Berryessa will once again delight residents in the area and visitors, alike, the communities here thriving anew.

Tzu Chi volunteers will continue to support Spanish Flat Mobile Villa community residents along the road to full recovery and a return to their homes. Photo / Renee Liu

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, disasters are also striking across the nation. Now, more than ever, is the time to help those who are struggling or have been most severely affected. Please support our Together While Apart campaign and bright light in times of trouble through your love.

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