Solidarity in the Wake of Ruthless California Wildfires

National Headquarters  |  November 2, 2020
On October 31, volunteers from Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters visited Southern California residents affected by the Blue Ridge Fire. Photo Jennifer Chien.

Written by Jennifer Chien
by Diana Chang
Edited by
Ida Eva Zielinska

The Silverado Fire ignited on the morning of October 26 in the Irvine area of ​​Orange County, California. That same afternoon, the Blue Ridge Fire broke out in the northern part of Orange County adjacent to San Bernardino County. Both wildfires spread rapidly due to wind, and because they burned so close to residential areas, they threatened over 8,700 homes, including 5,958 in the Chino Hills, 2,500 in Yorba Linda, and 276 in Brea.

Consequently, the Orange County Fire Authority placed more than 90,000 residents under evacuation orders. At the same time, more than 50 Southern California firefighting units – including Orange County Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and San Bernardino County Fire Department – joined forces to bring the fires under control and finally extinguish them.
However, for some families, the wildfires had already done their damage, burning properties and homes. After learning that the Blue Ridge Fire had completely destroyed a home in Yorba Linda and partially burned ten buildings, Tzu Chi volunteers visited the site on October 31 to offer care and comfort to the affected families.

Volunteers Martin Kuo (right) and Katherine Yang (left) discuss the fire damages with the owner of the destroyed house, Denise Behle (middle). Photo Jennifer Chien.
Tzu Chi volunteer Martin Kuo visits the interior of the home burned by the Blue Ridge Fire. Photo Jennifer Chien.

A Sorrowful Disaster Assessment

When the disaster assessment team arrived on the scene early that morning, they were surprised to see several fire trucks from the Riverside County Fire Department still there. They learned that the firefighters were concerned that the embers could reignite, so they were making regular inspections every day to ensure the arid hillsides of burnt ash would not once again be fanned into flames by the Santa Ana wind.

As volunteers Martin Kuo and Katherine Yang came onto the street severely impacted by the Blue Ridge Fire, they saw the remains of a house at the end of the road, the roof burned through, and all the windows smashed by the intense heat of the inferno. Seeing the destruction with only ashes and debris left in the structure, the two volunteers couldn’t help but feel sad for the homeowners.

This wreckage of a home belonged to Denise and Roger Behle, who sadly shared their story with the volunteers. “My family moved here more than ten years ago. In 2008, there was the Freeway Complex Fire in this area. Many neighbors’ houses burned in that fire. Our house was not damaged back then, but we didn’t get lucky this year. It’s completely destroyed by the fire,” Roger explained.

Denise Behle leads volunteer Katherine Yang to the backyard and explains how the fire started burning from there. Photo Jennifer Chien.
The hillside behind the Behles’ house is where the Blue Ridge Fire started. Photo Jennifer Chien.

Fortunately the Family and Pets Are Safe

Denise recounted how they evacuated in a hurry on October 26, when the fire ignited. Roger was working from home that day, and the couple’s youngest son, on vacation from college, was also there. At noon, the family smelled smoke coming from the backyard and saw its plumes approaching down the hillside. The parents packed quickly while their son went to the backyard to get the family’s pets, and they all fled to a relative’s place as fast as they could.

The family only later learned what happened to their home when a friend shared a picture of their burning house to express her condolences.

On TV, I saw the fire at my house, and it felt a bit unreal. I always thought that maybe the situation was not as bad as it looked on TV, but when we went home the following day, we saw that the house was destroyed, and it was worse than expected.

Denise mentioned that many relatives and friends called to comfort her when they saw the news. Although the home that they had lived in for over ten years had burned, she and her husband still said optimistically, “Fortunately, our family and pets are safe. The photos of our family are all stored away. The house is just a building. We’ll rebuild it.”

Volunteer Martin Kuo handed one of Tzu Chi’s eco-friendly blankets to Denise, expressing the team’s hope that its warmth and softness would bring some comfort at this difficult moment in time. Denise took the gift to heart, saying thoughtfully on behalf of her family, “Thank you so much for your visit. We can feel the neighborhood love. I hope that this experience can encourage everyone to cherish the present because the impermanence of life is unpredictable, and everyone should be grateful for everything you have.”

Volunteers Martin Kuo (left) and Katherine Yang (right) give Tzu Chi’s eco-friendly blanket to Denise Behle (middle), the owner of the burned home. Photo Jennifer Chien.
The remains of the beautiful Behle family home, destroyed by wildfire. Photo Jennifer Chien.

A Traumatic Memory For the Whole Community

Tzu Chi volunteer Wanling Hua, who also lives in this community, explained that when the Silverado Fire first started, she learned that the families of two Tzu Chi volunteers who live nearby received notice to evacuate, so she invited them over for temporary shelter. They had just arrived when suddenly, the police came by to inform Wanling to evacuate as well, so they all left her home behind too.

Wanling and her husband didn’t want to disturb their grown children, so they went to a hotel for the night. The following day, everyone received a notice that they could return home in the afternoon. But that didn’t relieve the lingering fear and distressing conditions. “Although I’m home, the hillside behind the house is still burning, so we kept the doors and windows closed for the past two days. On the third morning, I went out to the yard in the morning, and the smell of the smoke was choking, really uncomfortable,” Wanling shared, knowing that many in the area were equally affected.

Tzu Chi volunteer Wanling Hua and her family, residents in the area, are also evacuated due to the Silverado Fire. Photo Jennifer Chien.

Thankfully, the Huas’ home was spared from any damages, as were many other properties nearby. Nonetheless, as Tzu Chi volunteer Martin Kuo, in charge of disaster relief efforts in Orange County, explained, all combined, the Silverado and Blue Ridge fires consumed more than 27,000 acres. However, destruction to property was relatively light.

Unfortunately, wildfires are a fact of life in many communities on the West Coast. Tzu Chi Relief volunteers are always ready to assess damages and provide timely disaster aid quickly. By supporting Tzu Chi USA’s disaster relief mission, you can be the light for families suffering the upheaval and distress caused by sudden catastrophes, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Great strength comes from unity of minds and efforts.

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