Tzu Chi Northwest Responds to Wildfire Evacuations in California

Northwest  |  August 28, 2020
Tzu Chi Northwest Region CEO Minjhing Hsieh meets firefighters as he surveys fire stricken terrain in Northern California. Photo/Tzu Chi Northwest.

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Penny Liu
Edited by Dilber Shatursun

At around 3 AM on August 17, 2020, California Bay Area residents were awakened by rattling thunder and flashes of lightning. Wildfires ignited in the surrounding forests, drier than usual because of recent heat waves and drought. California fire officials called this the “lightning siege.” A state of emergency declaration followed.

By the morning of August 21, wildfires had already swept through 770,000 acres – making it the second largest fire in California’s recorded history. Then, on August 22, Bay Area weather alerts warned of major lightning events in the next few days that could spark additional firess. The surrounding areas remained alert.

Tzu Chi Northwest Region volunteers began to contact various community groups and individuals as soon as the fires had begun. Dharma Master Cheng Yen, founder of Tzu Chi, in Taiwan reminded volunteers to be vigilant and stay alert through the situation. Though an evacuation order was not yet in place, volunteers considered where or not evacuation should be seriously considered regardless.

A photo of a burned house by an evacuated resident in the San Jose area. Photo/Minjhing Hsieh.

Three separate fires comprised the Northern California fires. These included the LNU Lightning Complex Fire in the north, CZU Lightning Complex Fire toward the south, and SCU Lightning Complex Fire toward the east. Since they ignited, Tzu Chi volunteers affected by these three fires had to look out for their own safety and, at the same time, connect with neighbors to help each other plan and prepare for a possible evacuation.

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire

As of the morning of August 27, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire is still burning through Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties. It’s burn zone has reached 81,333 acres, destroying 635 structures, and is thus far roughly 21% contained. More than 77,000 people have been evacuated – the largest number among all three major wildfires.

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire caused roads in Santa Cruz County to close. Smoke fills the air. Photo/Minjhing Hsieh.

Tzu Chi volunteers Qizheng Huang and Judy Liao live in Saratoga, close to the CZU Fire. Back in March, when the coronavirus pandemic began, they had donated PPE to Santa Clara County firefighters on behalf of Tzu Chi. Adam Cosner, president of the Santa Clara County Firefighters Local Union 1165, was responsible for the wellbeing of nearly 300 firefighters in the county.

In August, Adam contacted Qizheng and Judy to arrange a meeting to make a donation by check on behalf of all the firefighters. They had arranged to meet on the morning of August 17 – the day lightning struck and caused the wildfire.

Adam Cosner presents a check on behalf of all firefighters in Santa Clara County. Photo/Judy Liao.

During the meeting, Adam also mentioned the exhausting work firefighters have been doing through the pandemic and the wildfires. After the meeting, Qizheng and Judy immediately purchased 15 packs of Jing Si Instant Noodles in 3 vegetable based flavors and 9 boxes of crackers and delivered them to the fire station the next day for them to eat on duty.

Tzu Chi volunteers deliver Jing Si Instant Noodles and veggie crackers to firefighters. Photo/Judy Liao.

Residents in Saratoga expressed their gratitude for the firefighters who promptly put out fires in the surrounding areas. Judy told us she had seen messages left on the website “Next Door” thanking firefighters for putting out sudden fires around their homes and keeping them safe.

Over in Cupertino, Tzu Chi volunteer Jason Sheu is volunteer activity coordinator. In recent months, he has focused his effort in a book study group. To make sure volunteers kept in touch, he would bring his pet dog Boba to the home of 90 year-old volunteer Xiulian Chen. There, he would help her and her daughter Rita (who has Down Syndrome) go online to join the study group every two weeks. This helped them give them support and close contact with their online community.

Tzu Chi volunteer Xiulian Chen joins the online study group from home to keep connected through the pandemic. Photo/Jason Sheu.
Boba, the dog of Tzu Chi volunteer Jason Sheu, visits Xiulian Chen’s home every two weeks. Photo/Jason Sheu.

After the online study group ended on 8/22, Jason took special care to remind Xiulian to prepare and pack for possible evacuation so they can be ready if necessary. On their behalf, he also requested assistance in the volunteer chat room to arrange for their pickup should they need to be evacuated. Tzu Chi volunteer Hui Wong immediately volunteered, demonstrating the warmth and sense of community through good times and bad.

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire

The LNU Lightning Complex Fire is currently burning through Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo, and Solano Counties. As of the morning of August 27, it has razed through 368,868 acres and is roughly 1/3 contained. Since it began, nearly 20,000 residents have been evacuated.

Tzu Chi volunteer Nancy Ku is a Sacramento, CA resident. During an online volunteer meeting on the afternoon of August 22nd, she shared evacuation stories of Tzu Chi volunteers and residents in Fairfield, CA, in Solano County where the LNU fire is approaching.

Tzu Chi volunteer Chuntan Lin in Fairfield had actively participated in Tzu Chi Medical outreaches and health fairs in both Sacramento and across California’s Central Valley as a dentist assistant – sometimes traveling over 4 hours round trips to participate in an event. During the morning of August 18, he received the order to evacuate, but his 95 year-old mother was unwilling to leave. By then, the fire was only 10 miles away from his house and smoke had already filled the air.

Chuntan had to convince his mother to evacuate while packing up their luggage.  Fortunately, she was able to be convinced and around noon they left to stay with her grandson who lives near the coast. Yet, after firefighters’ hard work, fires near Fairfield’s residential areas were put out and Chuntan and his mother could return home by August 22nd. Their house was undamaged.

Tzu Chi volunteer Chuntan Lin (left), who lives in northern Fairfield, has previously volunteered in Tzu Chi Medical outreaches as a dental assistant. Photo/Nancy Ku.

A long time donor to Tzu Chi, too, had decided not to evacuate even as the situation became dangerous. He is 90 years old and lives alone. Tzu Chi Sacramento volunteers kept constant contact with him by phone to make sure he was alright. Fortunately, the fire did not spread to the area so he has remained safe. Still, the strength and support of the Tzu Chi family ensures that no one is left forgotten or neglected.

The SCU Lightning Complex Fire Event

The SCU Lightning Complex Fire has been burning on the east side of the Bay Area. San Jose is near its edge with areas including Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus Counties. As of the morning of Aug 27, it has burned through 368,671 acres – making it larger than the Camp Fire, which burned down the entire town of Paradise, CA, in 2018. It is currently 35% contained and some 30,500 residents have been evacuated.

Firefighters had put out fires at a mountainside near Tzu Chi’s northern California regional office in Milpitas, CA in the evening of August 19.  When Tzu Chi staff member Renee Liu surveyed the area in the morning of 8/20, she could see the charred remains over the east Bay. Many residents who had packed up and were ready to evacuate were able to breathe a sigh of relief after not having to leave their homes.

A charred hill over at the east Bay as seen in Milpitas, CA. Photo/Renee Liu.

Jason, a local resident who has lived there for 20 years, said that there had been small wildfires before, but this is the first time a wildfire caused by lightning has ever been seen. There had been so many wildfires caused by lightning in the Bay Area. Firefighters across Northern California had already been stretched so thin that they weren’t able to get to every fire in time. Fortunately, in the evening of August 19, firefighters arrived just in time to prevent flames from reaching residential areas.

Jason, a long time Milpitas, CA resident said that wildfires caused by lightning was the first he had ever seen. Photo/Renee Liu.

Tzu Chi’s  Northwest Region Executive Director, Minjhing Hsieh, has been meeting with disaster relief team volunteers everyday as the fires have raged on. He’s also provided timely updates on the wildfires and nearby evacuation shelters to volunteers in local communities so they can be ready and prepared for potential evacuation.

In the morning of August 22nd, as the fires slightly stabilized, Minjhing went to the east San Jose area to survey the SCU fire. As he arrived at Mt. Hamilton Road, near the Lick Observatory, police had already set up roadblocks to stop cars from further entry.

Minjhing stepped out of his vehicle to greet law enforcement and explained that he was there on behalf of Tzu Chi. Upon learning that understanding Tzu Chi USA is a long time partner of the American Red Cross, they expressed their willingness to share updates on the fire and to help with the disaster survey.

The mountain itself contains few residents; police officer Tim has been working in the area for years and is familiar with every family there. A couple knew their house in the mountain had burned down, but they were anxious to get back to take a look. Officer Tim patiently explained the danger on the road. Even though the fire had gone in another direction, it was still not possible to allow them to go home.

Officer Tim patiently explained the dangers of re-entry before the fires had settled. Photo/Minjhing Hsieh.

Minjhing exchanged contact information with Officer Tim, hoping to stay in contact for possible disaster relief activities in the future. Officer Tim readily agreed to offer assistance.  The relationship between the public, non-governmental organizations, and the police proves it is even more important when disaster strikes.

A Continued Threat

Major lightning events and dry weather conditions continue to pose a threat to the containment of the fires. Minjhing has already suggested two plans of action to help volunteers throughout Northern California to prepare and to evacuate when necessary.

First, if necessary, the Tzu Chi Northwest Regional Office may be turned into a temporary shelter that maintains social distancing. He also requested that volunteers unaffected by wildfires volunteer to offer a space in their own homes for families to shelter. These measures are being taken to reduce the risk of large volumes of evacuees sheltering in a single space during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, residents across the area have been under great stress from the dramatic lifestyle changes and economic impact the pandemic has brought on. Fires like these – the CZU, LNU, and SCU – exasperate families under already sensitive living conditions. Regardless, Tzu Chi volunteers hoped to safely offer whatever love and compassion they can to help families survive disaster, disease, and much more.

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