Written by Jennifer Chien
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
The McKinney Fire ignited on July 29, 2022, in the Klamath National Forest, stretching across the border between Northern California and Southern Oregon. Curtis Sexton, in charge of the water tower, was the last resident to escape the town of Klamath River as the fire rapidly spread. As he sped towards safety with the blaze at his tail, Curtis documented the terrifying sight of the inferno racing over the mountains, worrying about his home within the burn area.
The McKinney Fire went on to scorch over 60,000 acres of land in Northern California, tragically claiming four lives and causing 12 injuries along its path as it engulfed 185 structures and damaged 11. Most of the destroyed buildings were in the Klamath River unincorporated community. To aid those impacted by the disaster, Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region volunteers distributed $21,000 on August 29, benefiting 57 individuals.
Tzu Chi volunteers assess damages in the disaster zone in the aftermath of the McKinney Fire. Photos/Changming Rong
The distribution would help people like Jess Smith-Rowe, who had a harrowing tale to share. “I packed all my luggage. It was only until a sea of fire blocked my path to the highway, and I was engulfed in fire as I escaped the fire scene, did I realize that I was too slow at escaping. I was almost burnt to death,” he would tell the volunteers.
Jess led some volunteers with him when he returned home. The memory of the terror he survived was still vivid as Jess pointed to the wreckage of his car, “This is my Cadillac. Before, it was parked by the lake. A big rain happened after the mountain fire, like a mudslide, flooding everything to the car road here.”
Neighbors Looking Out for Neighbors
Before the disaster relief distribution on August 29, three volunteers from Tzu Chi Chico in Northern California, Baba Kauna Mujamal and mother-daughter team Suzanne Morrison and Jessica, put aside their long-term Camp Fire rebuilding project temporarily and relocated to the Yreka Local Assistance Center on August 17 and 18. There, they assessed the needs of those affected by the McKinney Fire and registered them for aid while comforting their panicking hearts.
Subsequently, the Chico volunteer team got involved in the process of follow-up disaster relief. This involvement marked their first time participating in the entire relief mission, encompassing post-disaster emergency relief assessment of needs and distribution of cash cards.
Several days after the Chico team finished registering disaster survivors in Yreka, volunteer Suzanne Morrison received a call from 85-year-old Sharon Geers. “My neighbor is about to lose everything. The cattle he raised all perished in the fire, and he hasn’t received any help yet. Could I transfer my opportunity to receive a cash card to him?” Sharon asked.
Suzanne informed her caringly to notify her neighbor to apply so that Tzu Chi could distribute the needed cash cards to both households.
Another survivor, Maeve McLaughlin, explained to the volunteers that on the day of the disaster, she had to go to work and thought the blaze would not reach her house, so she didn’t bring much with her. Although she lost her home, she was thankful for her community, explaining, “Our community is very special. It’s a small community with few residents. All the neighbors look out for one another.”
Maeve was also grateful for Tzu Chi’s help, thanking the volunteers for assisting residents in this small mountainous area.
Daily Necessities Are So Expensive
On August 29, a team of 11 Tzu Chi volunteers set out towards Yreka, departing from different locations, including Chico, San Jose, the San Francisco Bay Area, Central California, and Portland, Oregon. The longest drive was over six hours. Reaching their destination, they gathered at the Yreka Local Assistance Center for the first McKinney Fire disaster aid distribution.
Tzu Chi’s heartwarming story and philosophy of giving touched many as they listened, clutching the cash card, eco-blanket, and bamboo bank they got. Having felt at a loss about their future, they thanked the volunteers for Tzu Chi’s having reached out a helping hand when they were most in need.
At the same time, McKinney Fire survivors shared their stories of terror and loss. With lingering fear, Curtis Sexton showed the volunteers videos and images on his phone, describing his horrifying escape from the inferno in great detail. Unfortunately, Curtis’ home and everything he owned was destroyed in the fire.
Curtis started a fundraising page online where he helplessly described, “All of my property burnt to ashes. It was not until this fire, when I had to restock some basic daily necessities, such as can openers, peelers, bedroom furniture, and glasses, that I realized how expensive these items are.” Thankfully, the cash card from Tzu Chi will give him a head start on recovery from this wildfire disaster.
A Little Town Brimming With Compassion
The Klamath River Community Center, built in 1940, was utterly destroyed in the fire. This venue was where all the town’s resident gatherings, big or small, took place. It also served as the food and supplies distribution center for local low-income households. Mike Story, the Center manager, told volunteers that rebuilding the structure would take two years.
At the same time, the post-disaster community requires a place to hold continuous distributions for those in need. Thus, Klamath River must urgently erect a big sturdy tent to resume the town’s normal operations. After volunteers understood the community’s pressing issues, they promised that Tzu Chi would provide additional assistance.
Yet even at this challenging moment, the town’s residents focused on helping each other out.
Juan Castillo, who lost all his belongings in the fire, had been staying with a friend, although living in someone else’s home was inconvenient to both, and he felt increasingly like a burden. Tzu Chi’s disaster relief would help alleviate some of the problems he was facing.
“Thank you for your cash cards. This card is the best gift from God. I just found a rental place yesterday and need to buy lots of daily life necessities,” he exclaimed, After hearing Tzu Chi volunteer Baba Kauna Mujamal read the condolence letter from Master Cheng Yen, Tzu Chi’s founder, Juan felt tears well up in his eyes.
At 80, Beverly is like a beloved elderly relative to all Klamath River residents. She often cooks hot food and shares it with her neighbors, and always cares for families in need in this community. Through Tzu Chi’s cash card distribution, residents who had scattered after the fire reunited. Many greeted Beverly joyfully upon seeing her, everyone inquiring about and celebrating each other’s safety and health.
As Beverly hugged Tzu Chi volunteers at the distribution, she sadly shared, “Half of our community nearly burnt to the ground, which is truly heartbreaking since everyone shares good rapport and always helps each other.” Fellow resident Jess Smith-Rowe said to the volunteers, “Thank you for coming here. Although we’re a small town, everyone is valuable to us. You’ve done so much for us. Being able to receive these cash cards means a lot for me and my friends who have been affected by the disaster.”
The McKinney Fire destroyed the peaceful life of residents in this mountain area. Still, the mutual support of neighbors, a timely helping hand from Tzu Chi, and a strong sense of solidarity fortified residents’ faith in rebuilding, which is the best antidote to curing the spiritual scars of post-traumatic stress after a disaster.