Disaster case manager Bobbie Rae Jones meets the Brazell family for the first time in October of 2019. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.
Written by Huan Xun Chan
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
In October 2019, disaster case manager Bobbie Rae Jones visited the Brazell family for the first time. The household of seven had been living in a fifth-wheel trailer together, and conditions were not always ideal. They had an outdoor kitchen, no fridge or sink, and had to manually boil water and pour it into a basin that connected to the trailer’s water pipe for washing and showering. It was the second time the family had been affected by a fire. In 2016, their Christmas tree caught fire and rendered the Brazell family homeless.
One year after the Camp Fire, the Brazell family still lives in challenging conditions, as seven members of their family stay in a fifth-wheel trailer where most facilities had to take place outdoors. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.
A year later, they got a loan and bought a new house, acquired a stove, a washer, and a dryer. Everything seemed to get back on track gradually. At that time, Andrea Brazell recalled that her mother had asked why she didn’t put paintings on the walls in their new house. Andrea thought about this carefully, saying, “Every time I get comfortable and start enjoying life and putting things up on the wall, something is going to happen.” Andrea’s mother comforted her and assured them that nothing was going to happen to them this time.
“So I did,” said Andrea. “We painted the wall, we put all the pictures up, and the Camp Fire came through.”
November 8th, 2018, was a truly devastating day for Butte County residents. In the early morning, the sky glowed orange-red, and residents from Paradise, Magalia, and Concow, had been forced to flee for their very lives.
That morning, Andrea and her husband, Jason Brazell, went to work as usual. “We left about 4:30 in the morning and drove to Wheatland. We worked at a big farm.”
It was unusual when Andrea received a call from her child at around 6:45 AM. “Mom, I think there is a fire,” said her child through the phone. “The sky looks crazy and there is smoke and wind.” Ten minutes later, the phone rang again, but this time, the situation seemed to have quickly escalated. “Mom, we have to go, there is fire everywhere around the house. What do we do?”
“Yes, go!” said Andrea.
In 2018, all of her children were still in their teens, the youngest being just 12 years old. On the day of the fire, Andrea’s eldest son had gone for work, and her other children successfully escaped from the burning area. The Brazell’s home had been destroyed by fire once again.
“I was really sad,” said Jason. “My trees, I cried over my trees. I love my trees, I really do. These trees are a hundred years old; they can’t come back.” Although the scorched trees were still standing, they had to be removed due to safety concerns. Jason wept for the loss of long-cherished nature, but also declared his gratitude for his family’s good health, and he was certain that his family would stay strong. They had been through hardship once; they could make it again.
It wasn’t until summer when most Camp Fire survivors were able to move back onto their land and camp out. Jason started volunteering in the community. He joined the others to cook for the people in need. One day, he heard that there was a gentleman building yurts for homeless people. Jason was interested in the project and immediately volunteered himself.
Jason Brazell removes the burnt trees from his property after the fire due to safety concerns, and uses the cherished trees to help others left homeless in the community by building yurts with a group of volunteers. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.
After some time, the funds were exhausted, however. To proceed with the project, Jason offered additional help. “I got piles of wood and I got a place,” he’d said. “We can set up our own workshop.”
They could be seen building yurts on Jason’s property for months. They milled the wood into all the materials needed to build the yurts. When someone in the community needed shelter, the volunteer group would go to the property together and build them a yurt. Indeed, a yurt built with wood was safer and warmer than camping out in a tent.
“That’s big for me, in my healing,” shared Jason. “Plus, my dead trees are going to something good. It’s like my mission. If I can help other people and not think about the destruction, then it helps me tremendously.”
The first winter since the Camp Fire soon came. Inside the trailer, the wall started to mold, and that severely affected Andrea’s respiratory condition as she’d survived cancer.
At the beginning of November in 2019, the Camp Fire Manufactured Home Replacement Program was launched. Disaster case manager Bobbie brought a thick pile of application forms to visit the Brazells. She referred them to the resource and encouraged them to apply. In the meantime, Jason had completed some repair work on the water, electricity, and septic systems to get ready for rebuilding. “We have had our soil tested several times. We failed once, and they had to come back and clean it. My septic system, I had to prove it exists, so I have to pay $500 to dig in my own yard to show them,” said Jason. “We don’t have any money for a house, so we’ve just been surviving. Just doing what we can, getting by.”
Despite the difficult recovery, the Brazell family still tries their best to make life lovely. Jason Brazell builds a patio and garden for Andrea, they buy a second-hand piano for the youngest son who loves music, and the kitchen gets a fridge and stove. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.
One day in March of 2020, Andrea received a call from Bobbie, she was informed that the application was approved. Andrea was so happy that she cried on the call, and painted after she hung up to help express her feelings. “[While painting,] I was thinking a lot about the fire. I was thinking a lot about the things we have been through. There is like a reflection there, it would give me hope, like looking in a mirror.”
On the day they were to sign the beneficiary agreement, the Brazell family, Bobbie, and another disaster case manager, Skip Culton, met Tracy Davis, the project coordinator.
In March of 2020, Andrea and Jason Brazell, Bobbie Rae Jones, and Skip Culton meet with project coordinator Tracy Davis to sign the manufactured home replacement beneficiary agreement. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.
The Brazell case was one of the first cases that Skip Culton handled as a case manager. He vetted the application and facilitated the communications between the project coordinator and the applicants. As a Camp Fire survivor, himself, the moment when the Brazell family signed the agreement really moved him. “It is my great honor and privilege to have assisted this amazing and resilient family in their recovery after this terrible disaster and to see their renewed spirit and gratitude.”
With the agreements signed, Tracy explained their next steps: the family would next meet with the manufacturer for more paperwork. The bid would be received on the property to be reviewed by the project coordinator and the construction analyst. Once approved, permits would be filed. After the permits had been approved by the local jurisdiction, the project coordinator would be looking at ordering the manufactured home, which typically takes about six to eight weeks. Once the home had been delivered to Butte County, it would take six to eight weeks to get it installed on the property.
Nothing went according to the plan. The global pandemic left many businesses at a standstill; many agencies and departments had also switched into virtual operations. The work progress was drastically impacted and, therefore, delayed.
Several months later, once the stay-at-home order had been lifted, business in Butte County gradually resumed. Skip Culton was the one to bring the good news – the manufactured home would be delivered to Butte County in mid-August.
On August 17th, 2020, Butte County residents woke up under an orange-red sky. The North Complex Fire occurred in Plumas County nearby. Because of the dry weather and strong wind, on the same day, many wildfires scorched different areas in California. The Golden State declared an emergency and residents were staying alert.
It was almost impossible for the manufactured home to travel from the factory in Southern California, passing through the burning fire zones in Central California to reach Northern California safely. Again, the plan was postponed. At the same time, the contractor also needed to protect his home in Concow from the wildfire.
On September 8th, the North Complex Fire spread to the west at high speed, threatening the residential areas in Butte County. The entire county had been experiencing bad air quality. Fire invaded the nearby mountain area, and Concow residents received evacuation orders.
One month later, most fires were contained. At last, Brazell’s manufactured home had a new delivery date set.
Disaster case manager Bobbie said that a family had to take a great deal of small steps to get safe and sustainable housing like this. She shared that when working on disaster case management with Tzu Chi, case managers do not only help clients navigate resources and set recovery plans. “A lot of our job is just sort of being there and encouraging and supportive to the end.”
The smoky air faded after several weeks, and the clear blue sky above Butte County signaled that it was a good day for the great outdoors.
In the early morning on October 13th, 2020, Bobbie and the team headed to the Brazell’s property. As the roads in Concow are narrow and partly unpaved, it took them over an hour to complete the normally ten-minute journey.
While waiting, Bobbie and the family were waiting expectantly. Bobbie said that it was a year ago when she did the case intake with the family, and now it was like a cycle had finally been completed.
The Brazell family anticipates the arrival of their new home. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.
Andrea recalled the first meeting with Bobbie as well, saying, “She came here to our address, we sat on that wall. She asked some questions, how we have been, what we have been doing, what do we have, what do we need, what do we plan on doing. She asked this very important question: Are we planning on staying?” Andrea said that was the main question. She and Jason answered yes, they wanted to stay, the property was all they had. Although they did not know what the future would hold financially, Bobbie helped them put the pieces together and built a recovery plan with them.
Disaster case manager Bobbie Rae Jones witnesses the new home’s arrival with the Brazell family. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.
Only when the trailer truck appeared at the intersection did Andrea feel that reality was sinking in. “Oh, my God. There it is,” she said. However, it almost seemed too good to be true. “Am I dreaming? Is this real?” The home reached their driveway, slowly approaching Andrea. She stared at the new house, turned around and saw the trailer behind them, looked around at the people who came to celebrate this moment. Everything told her that the new home was real.
On the morning of October 13, 2020, the manufactured home for the Brazell family is delivered to the property in Concow. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.
Upon seeing the new home, Jason said, “We get to be stable again, cook normally, bathe normally, have an actual living room where the family can sit in together, not tripping over each other.”
Not everyone in the family could overcome the challenging living conditions. Their 14-year-old, who is their youngest son, had moved out to stay with his eldest brother. He’d told his father that he would come back when they had a new home, and he’s been back home for two months now. Jason excitedly shared that the teenager would also have his own room. “We have been talking about how he wants to decorate it. He picked the color in the house.”
As it was too cramped for seven people to live in the trailer, Andrea and Jason’s teenage daughter and son temporarily stayed elsewhere. Having a new home, however, brought the family back together again. Photo by Kitty Lu.
Having a new home means they no longer need to boil water and pour it into the basin that connects to the shower. They would not be cut by latches again and have more scars on their arms. The new house came with a fridge, a stove, a dishwasher, and more. Andrea was eagerly anticipating cooking and baking in an equipped kitchen again.
Regarding the fifth-wheel trailer, Jason said they would give it to another homeless family. “We know what it is like to be homeless, obviously. We just feel it’s the right thing to help someone else out.”
Thanksgiving was coming. Andrea said they had not been able to celebrate for two years, and she hoped that the new house could bring the family together, and that they would be able to make new memories there. At the end of the year, one of their daughters gave birth and the family welcomed their first grandchild. Later, Andrea had surgery and could stay in a warm house while she recovered. Case manager Skip Culton helped them apply for help to purchase furniture.
Stepping into 2021, the Brazell family finally felt like they had reached their destination on their journey to recovery. Looking back at their post-disaster experience, the bond between the Brazell family and Tzu Chi seemed like yet another circle that had been fully realized. Right after the Camp Fire occurred in 2018, the family had received an emergency relief cash card from Tzu Chi volunteers, Andrea recalled. She said it was such a different experience from other agencies. Tzu Chi volunteers treated them lovingly and prayed for them sincerely. Andrea still remembered when she walked through the door that day; she felt hopeful knowing that there would be helpful people available down the road.
The Camp Fire destroyed the Brazell’s home, put a hold on Jason’s dream to start a non-profit farming organization, and threatened Andrea’s health as a cancer survivor. Two years later, the arrival of a new home opens a new chapter for the Brazell family. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.