Tzu Chi Volunteers Help Last Chance Residents on the Road to Reconstruction

Northwest  |  March 10, 2022
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Tzu Chi volunteers in Silicon Valley bring winter warm clothes to the residents of the “Last Chance” community, which was affected by CZU Lightning Fire. This kind deed sends a warm greeting to residents who are still living in temporary wooden huts, trailer houses, and even tents, in the cold winter. Photography/Andy Chiang

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Maggie Morgan

As winter entered the atmosphere, it seemed that the haunting, charred-black color from the CZU Lightning Fires had started to fade; new life and lush greenery began to heal the memories of the summer 2020 disaster. A sprout emerged from the soil, representing hope for what’s to come, and it mirrored the smile on Susie Devergranne’s face. 

She said happily to the visiting Tzu Chi volunteers, “These new lives are a great encouragement. We really need the support from positive news like these.”

The "Last Chance" deep mountain community that was hit by the compounded disasters of lightning and wildfires last summer has seen trees sprouting green by the end of 2021. Photography/Judy Liao

In the early afternoon of Sunday, December 5, 2021, three Silicon Valley Tzu Chi volunteers,  Chijen Huang, Andy Chiang, and Judy Liao, drove to the Last Chance community in Santa Cruz. They brought with them a slew of winter clothing to offer residents who had lost their homes to the CZU Lightning Fires the previous summer. Tzu Chi volunteers were confident that the supply of blankets, shoes, jackets, trousers, thick socks, woolen hats, and gloves, could uplift residents who still resided in makeshift wooden houses, trailers, and even tents; the winter gear would allow them to better resist the piercing chill of winter nights.

Community members who received winter clothing from Tzu Chi volunteers happily chat about the current status of the community reconstruction project. Photography/Andy Chiang

One Step On A Long Road Ahead

Located in a remote mountainous area, surrounded by forests, Last Chance was almost completely ravaged by lightning and wildfires in the summer of 2020. Insurance was little help to the self-governing community and public resources are largely insufficient. The road to reconstruction has been long and difficult, but residents have remained steadfast in their commitments to living close to Mother Earth. Though she was the very force that took away everything from them, nature is what they continue to rely on in rebuilding their homes and community.

In memoriam of a year since the disasters, residents gathered to remind themselves of all the good they had experienced in their unique style of living and aimed to rediscover their spirit of gratitude. A wooden board was erected in the open space of Last Chance to commemorate the occasion, the black ink on it read:

“In Memory of All the Lost August 18, 2020 In the CZU Lightning Fires that destroyed Last Chance.”

A wooden board was erected in the open space of Last Chance to commemorate the occasion. Photography/Judy Liao

After the CZU Lightning Fire broke out, Tzu Chi’s Silicon Valley volunteers quickly issued cash cards to help those affected, and learned about the Last Chance community through some of the beneficiaries in attendance. 

The recipients shared with volunteers how their homes, food supply, water supply, and livelihoods had all been torn apart after the fires. The small, isolated community is largely self-reliant and separate from any government municipalities, so the responsibility of rebuilding rested on its residents’ shoulders. 

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation seeks to alleviate suffering in ways that specifically address a situation, taking in the unique problems at hand and finding immediate solutions; Volunteers provided material care to supplement some living necessities for the residents whose homes had been completely destroyed.

After receiving new sneakers from Tzu Chi volunteers, community residents happily thanked the team for their hard work. Photography/Judy Liao

Tzu Chi volunteers wanted to dive further into the headspace of Last Chance residents and understand their strife from the inside out; the team began attending the community’s rebuilding meetings in order to learn as much as possible regarding their situation. 

Through attending these meetings, volunteer Chijen Huang became aware of the legal and economic problems faced by Last Chance residents. Members of the community had been struggling in coordinating to apply for reconstruction with relevant public departments throughout the past year. 

Though countless obstacles had surfaced, government units as well as many non-governmental organizations have worked to assist in all aspects, and reconstruction has seen some progress as of late. 

“Despite how slow each step is, we still carry with us the hope that reconstruction efforts will be successful” said volunteer Chijen Huang regarding the current progress, 

“This is a long way to rebuild,” he continued.

And he’s right, there is much to be done. Whether it is recreating the only access road (now in need of catering to specifications for large fire trucks) rebuilding various public facilities in the community (including water storage towers, providing emergency-use medical supplies, donating community fire-fighting devices, handing out equipment for sawing trees and soil preparation, and organizing community activity centers; all of these initiatives are huge challenges to residents after their economic losses from the CZU lightning fire. 

Tzu Chi USA offered material support this season, and will continue to keep in touch with community residents on the progress of reconstruction in hopes of reevaluating how to continually provide assistance. Last Chance and its residents will need consistent support from various government departments as well as community organizations.

Residents Return Home to Rebuild for the Future

Julian Devergranne, a 17-year-old highschool student, grew up in the Last Chance community. The entire neighborhood was destroyed by the cataclysmic event, leaving families like Julian’s without their once happy homes. However,the Devergrannes, a family of four, had grown close to the natural life near the land and chose to return to the community to rebuild both their hope and their home.

The first step upon returning to the community was to confront the unrecognizable ashes that took the place of the life they had once known. The second step? Restructuring that life, little by little. 

Julian’s father’s friend offered his military truck to the family to help with the heavy-lifting. The truck had been previously parked in a cargo container when the fire broke out. The high temperatures had melted some objects on the surface of the car, and the glass was burned, but the truck could still get the job done. The family was able to clear the community trees and help neighbors in towing their cars out of the mud.

A Middle-Gideon German military truck helped young Julian, his family, and neighbors in the community clean up the scene after the lightning complex fire. Photography/Andy Chiang

Directly following the fires, Julian’s family had lived in a small trailer and a small tent in the open space of the community. After more than a year of cleaning, the family was able to build a temporary, small wooden board house at the site of their original home. 

The house became his mother’s studio, while Julian set up another tent for his own use. Julian told the visiting Tzu Chi volunteers.

I think our family's living environment in the Last Chance community is very good, so I don't want to move to the city, and I continue to work hard with my family to rebuild our home.

Young Julian sets up a tent to live in for his own accommodation and rest. Photography/Andy Chiang

Julian’s life may look like an average high schooler’s on the outside as he continues his education, but it is far from it. The 17-year-old worked part-time in a timber factory to help support his household. In his spare time, like most young people in the community, he helped his parents and neighbors to sort rafts. Trees that fell because of the wildfires could not be burnt with branches. The ones that could be recycled were used as building materials for house reconstruction or to be sold to supplement households. 

Doing timber-related work during the winter not only helps with restructuring the community, but it could reduce possible combustion in the community during the upcoming wildfire season.

Rebuilding the Devergranne home was never just a hope, it is a plan that the family is determined to make a reality. Standing on the hillside where his former home was located, Julian pointed to the freshly green redwood forest at the foot of the mountain, laying out his plan for Tzu Chi volunteers. 

My own house is going to be built on this vacant lot, and it will have two floors. I’ll see the valley full of trees from my window.

Julian’s mother, Susie Devergranne, upon receiving warm winter blankets and clothing from Tzu Chi volunteers, chatted with the team while they stood on the slowly-greening community area. She explained more about the clean-up in the past year and the challenges of reconstruction in the future. Susie was beaming with gratitude for Tzu Chi’s support immediately after the fire, and thanked them for their concern about the reconstruction process. She said:

The residents all feel that we are not alone. We have your (Tzu Chi volunteers) uplifting support and helping hand. These acts of kindness really make me tearful...

Susie hugged Tzu Chi volunteers and her heartfelt sentiment was felt.

Tzu Chi volunteers continue to accompany the Last Chance community in the deep mountains on the rugged road of reconstruction. Photography/Judy Liao

It has been a year since the wildfire, and members of Last Chance have only just begun to walk down the road to reconstruction. Though the journey will be inevitably long and the obstacles unceasing, the greenery from new life, trees and branches amidst the changing seasons, has given the residents the breath of courage they need to proceed.

Residents who travel the road of reconstruction know that they are not alone; there is a caring force trailing not far behind, supporting their every step, seeking to understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes. The blades of grass that only just sprouted will one day surround the trees and homes rebuilt by the residents. The pieces of new life will intertwine with what’s left of the old. Residents will once again hear the familiar sounds of gentle wind passing through the lush redwood forest as it sings the song of a community now whole again.

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