Portrait of a Family Rising up from the Ashes after the North Complex Fires

Northwest  |  December 9, 2020
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Written by Huan Xun Chan
Translated by Melody Cao
Edited by Diana Chang and Ida Eva Zielinska

Robyn and Bob Goodwin have lived in the town of Berry Creek, located in Northern California’s Butte County, for more than 30 years. Before retirement, the couple passed beautiful Lake Oroville every day on the way to work and when heading home. One could say they had a tranquil life surrounded by nature.

However, all that would change on September 8, when the North Complex West Zone wildfire, one of the North Complex wildfires ignited by lightning strikes on August 17, suddenly changed course and blazed through Berry Creek, leveling it.

Wildfires are impacting the lives of many California residents in recent years. The Goodwin family received at least one fire evacuation notice per year yet had mostly been spared from disaster. But this time was different: The rapidly advancing inferno had veered toward Berry Creek, forcing them to evacuate, then incinerated their home overnight.

The North Complex West Zone wildfire destroys the home of the Goodwin family.

After firefighters brought the blaze under control, the Goodwins returned to the site of their home, now a wasteland of ash, but on terrain so familiar and loved. “We came back to say goodbye,” Robyn said, adding that “it was comforting just to see it, in its own way, and know that we’ve got a lot of work, a lot of work ahead of us.”

As she stood before the remains of the family’s burnt home, Robyn didn’t look for anything in particular. “Just let them go,” she said of all the objects lost, although anything found that survived the flames is precious.

The beautiful flowers and trees the Goodwins had planted near their home are also destroyed by the fire. Photo/Kitty Lu

The couple evacuated around three o’clock in the afternoon on the day the wildfire hit. As they were leaving, Robyn and Bob were optimistic and didn’t honestly expect that the fire would burn their house down.

A week later, they were finally able to return to survey the devastation, for which they had already braced themselves. “It wasn’t like we hadn’t seen it because the Deputy Sheriff had taken some pictures for us, so we knew what to expect,” Bob said.

Robyn retained a calm tone as she shared about the experience as if it was painless. “We handled it pretty well and without too much emotion, just inhaled and came to say goodbye,” she recounted with a brave smile.

Robyn Goodwin walks around searching for items that were not burnt to ash by the fire. Photo/Huan Xun Chan

There are many things wildfire survivors have to deal with, one day at a time. The first thing Robyn does each morning is plan what she needs to deal with that day and who she needs to contact. However, even then, everything is in flux, unpredictable, which she takes in stride, explaining, “It’s never what we planned. As far as plans, it’s just day by day.”

Robyn Goodwin is calm, determined, and optimistic as she faces the reality of having lost her home to a wildfire and prepares for the long road to recovery. Photo/Huan Xun Chan

Bob put his arms around Robyn to console her, sharing with Tzu Chi volunteers that “We have been living here for more than 30 years, very peacefully.” During the three decades, the couple created a happy home and planted a gorgeous garden; they raised their two daughters here; this is where they had expected to spend the rest of their lives, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. And yet, fate had different plans. Nonetheless, the two have supported each other through thick and thin and will brave this catastrophic disruption to their lives together.

“This is the front yard… our living room… my room…” Robyn explained as she walked Tzu Chi volunteer Kitty Lu through the charred ruins. She also showed her photos to illustrate the difference between before and after the fire. When chatting with Robyn, Kitty felt the fear she had experienced due to the wildfire: “She told me how fierce the fire was when it came, and it was too late to pack things up. Through her eyes, I saw the pain.”

It was a moving experience for Kitty, who took pictures to document the damages as part of Tzu Chi USA’s disaster assessment team. When she then reviewed the photos she took of Robyn, Kitty remarked, “If you look closely, you can actually feel her regret and loss. But she talked about everything with a happy and hearty smile. What was originally here, what memories the family had, as she walked with us, she showed us some of her precious treasures.”

A pool, a car decorated by their kids when they were young, hand-made garden decor: While charred, the ruins and remains reveal the happiness the family had shared on this site.

Robyn Goodwin shows some old photos to volunteers, comparing the difference between her home then and now, after the fire. Photo/Kitty Lu

As the Tzu Chi team was starting to leave, Kitty noticed that Robyn was wandering about near an apple tree by the road, watching them go. After talking to her, Kitty learned that Robyn was watching in case they didn’t know the way back to the main road. Her genuine concern was born from taking into account how much Tzu Chi volunteers have been doing to support people impacted by wildfires in this region.

Since the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed several communities in Butte County, including Paradise, Magalia, and Concow, Tzu Chi has continued to accompany those affected along the road to full recovery.

Robyn exclaimed, “You guys have pretty much stayed with people for the past two years, and you’re still working with them. You came to their aid and assistance, making the connections, saying ‘I see you, I respect you, and you’re not lost.’” And so, now she watched over the departing disaster assessment team in the same spirit of love and care. Moreover, after things settle down a bit, Robyn wants to do more than that.

She recounted to Kitty that she contacted her friend Bobbie Rae Jones, who joined Tzu Chi after the Camp Fire and is currently a disaster case manager for long-term recovery cases. She told her that she wanted to volunteer to help the community: “I’ve had many, many friends who experienced losing their homes and I always wondered what I would be like if I lost my home. I wanted to come back and help my community who I worked with. I have compassion and feeling because I’ve experienced the same thing and I think they also appreciate that too, a little bit. They know that you’re there and also some of their community are there too.”

After hearing Robyn’s story of loss followed by an eagerness to help others going through the same misfortune, Kitty was touched and said, “I can feel the selflessness of people; I felt her resilience.”

Genuine love is the most moving; selfless giving is the most precious.

Tzu Chi volunteer Kitty Lu (left) talks to wildfire survivor Robyn Goodwin (right) and witnesses her resilience first hand. Photo/Huan Xun Chan

Wildfires continue to wreak havoc in the lives of many Northern California residents. Tzu Chi USA is steadily providing emergency as well as long-term recovery aid. By supporting our efforts, you, too, can be part of such disaster relief missions and other initiatives offering vital care to those in need during the pandemic and beyond.

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