Timely Disaster Aid Following an Apartment Complex Fire in Upland, CA

National Headquarters  | August 10, 2021
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Volunteers explain the origin of Tzu Chi’s bamboo banks to disaster-stricken residents in Upland, San Bernardino County, California. Photo/James Huang

Written by Jennifer Chien
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Diana Chang, Ida Eva Zielinska

On May 4, 2021, an apartment building complex in the City of Upland in San Bernardino County, California, suffered a devastating fire. Subsequently, Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters Region volunteers received a request from the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to come to Upland and provide emergency assistance services to residents affected by the disaster. 

Fifty-Nine Families Are Displaced

The fire destroys a two-story apartment building’s upper floor, while the ground floor apartments incur extensive water damage that ruins residents’ belongings. Photo/James Huang
All units in the main building of the fire-damaged community are no longer accessible. Photo/James Huang

The fire occurred in an apartment building complex on W. 7th St. in Upland. The community consists of a horseshoe-shaped main building and a flat-shaped building to square off the swimming pool and public space area located in the middle.

Uliana Perogies, the apartment complex manager who lives on site, recounted with lingering fear that at 2 PM on May 4, a small fire had suddenly ignited in a unit on the second floor of the westernmost corner of the horseshoe-shaped main building. The growing wind outside fanned the flames as they spread, and soon the fire engulfed the roof of the entire main building. 

All 59 residents were evacuated due to the disaster. And at the moment, the 36 families who lived on the main building’s upper and lower floors can’t reside there due to all the fire and water damage in their homes. Uliana’s apartment was impacted as well:

The second floor was burned by the fire, and even the roof burned through. After fighting the fire, the whole room in my first-floor apartment seemed to be raining, dripping water for three straight days.

Uliana Perogies, Apartment Complex Manager
The management company set up a tent on site where the apartment complex manager, Uliana Perogies (standing, middle), provides information to assist residents. Photo/Jennifer Chien

The residents of the complex affected by the fire received help from the American Red Cross and were resettled in neighboring hotels. However, the emergency resettlement aid was to end on May 14, while ten families had still not found a new place to settle.

Tzu Chi USA Sets Up a Station at the Local Assistance Center

To help the residents affected by fire, the City of Upland and San Bernardino County set up a Local Assistance Center (LAC) on May 13 to provide support and information about available resources. Tzu Chi USA also set up a station there so that volunteers could interview the impacted families, ascertain their current situation, and issue cash cards for emergency assistance to repurchase what was lost in the fire.

Tzu Chi USA has a station to serve disaster-stricken households at the Local Assistance Center set up by the City of Upland on May 13. Photo/James Huang
Anthony Chavez and his family fill out paperwork outside the Local Assistance Center in Upland on May 13. Photo/James Huang

The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District’s Office of Emergency Services was responsible for setting up the LAC. Klasha Curry-Ray, Emergency Services Officer at the San Bernardino County Fire Department, explained that establishing a Local Assistance Center helps residents obtain necessary government information or related assistance, such as tax relief, food assistance, transportation services, and so on. 

She expressed gratitude to Tzu Chi USA for providing emergency relief funds to survivors and helping them purchase necessary supplies. In response, Curtis Hsing, Supervisor of Emergency Disaster Services for Tzu Chi USA, explained that when Tzu Chi volunteers arrive in a disaster area, they aim to relieve suffering quickly by offering immediate and timely assistance to those affected. Moreover, he shared that Tzu Chi’s disaster relief, like all its other missions, is guided by the Buddhist teachings of Dharma Master Cheng Yen.

The fire in the apartment complex had connected Tzu Chi USA with the City of Upland for the first time. Four volunteers served at Tzu Chi’s station at the LAC, remaining on duty from 10 AM to 8 PM to care for the impacted residents and understand their plight directly. They also introduced the origin of Tzu Chi and its global footprints of spreading love and good deeds.

The volunteers interviewed the affected families one by one, listened to their plight, and finally issued an emergency relief cash card ranging from $600 to $800 to affected families who experienced the most adverse impact from this fire. A unit in another building in this community was also damaged from smoke. The households who came to ask for help said that the owner had decided to demolish the entire community for reconstruction and asked them to move out within a specified time. Therefore, Tzu Chi will issue a cash card value of $200 to $400 to these families who are forced to relocate.

Curtis Hsing, Supervisor of Emergency Disaster Services Tzu Chi USA
Volunteers introduce Tzu Chi’s cash cards to residents in detail, explaining that they embody proof of the energy of love from around the world. Photo/James Huang

Tzu Chi Volunteers Provide Immediate Financial Assistance

Anthony Chavez brought his wife and son to the Local Assistance Center hoping to get some immediate help. The family was still living in a hotel arranged by the American Red Cross, but tomorrow would be the last day of the emergency resettlement aid. Although both the husband and wife have part-time jobs, high rents in Southern California have made it difficult for them to find a new place. After receiving a cash card from Tzu Chi, Anthony finally felt a sense of relief.

We came here hoping to get help, but every organization on-site only asked us to fill in our information and wait for the reply. Only your organization (Tzu Chi USA) gave us a cash card on the spot that we can use for necessary living expenses.

Anthony Chavez, Apartment Complex Fire Survivor
Angelika Mairena (middle) and her husband become very interested in Tzu Chi from volunteers’ introductions, and they even proactively ask for an extra bamboo bank. Photo/James Huang

A young couple also came to the Tzu Chi station at the LAC. Angelika Mairena and her husband told the volunteers that the fire had destroyed all their belongings. Sadly, they also shared how some of their neighbors were still in sorrow from losing their pets to the fire since they weren’t working from home that day and couldn’t rescue them. 

Upon receiving the cash card and bamboo bank from Tzu Chi volunteers, Angelica exclaimed happily, “Thank you so much. Not only did we get substantial help, but we also got to know a special group of volunteers with a mission to ‘accumulate small kindnesses and give great love.’”

Maryan Soliman, who is a professor of history at many nearby universities, mentioned: “When the fire broke out, I heard the loud sirens, so I hurriedly picked up my cat and grabbed the key. I ran away from the apartment with my mobile phone in hand. The fire quickly engulfed my apartment on the second floor. I lost all my personal belongings, including my computer.” 

Maryan, who moved into her mother’s place after the fire, received a Tzu Chi cash card and was full of gratitude for the immediate aid, and also, feeling inspired, she told the volunteers with emotion, “I have decided to become a Tzu Chi volunteer.”

Volunteers introduce Master Cheng Yen and the origin of Tzu Chi to Maryan Soliman (right), who is inspired by learning about the organization and its founder. Photo/Jennifer Chien

In total, Tzu Chi USA distributed $17,600 during this disaster relief mission, benefiting 85 residents of 31 households. 

The ruthless fire had forced more than 50 households to move, but this regrettable cause linked the fate of these disaster survivors to discover Tzu Chi’s mission of putting compassion in action and helping those in need. The seeds of kindness to help others through small acts were planted in their hearts on May 13 and will sprout into forests of great love in the coming years.

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