Written by Huan Xun Chan
Translated by Huan Xun Chan
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
Of the nearly 19,000 structures destroyed by the 2018 Camp Fire in California, almost 14,000 were residences. Many families left without a home due to this wildfire disaster are still struggling to recover today. And, their homes didn’t even have to burn down to the ground for their troubles to persist, as Tamra South’s story reveals …
Good News That Quickly Turned Sour
“Damage level: Smoke damage.” When Tamra South first heard this news about her home in Magalia, she was overjoyed. It certainly seemed fortunate that her modular house was still standing and unburnt when the Camp Fire had thoroughly destroyed so many others in Butte County. Ironically, a chain effect of unexpected consequences and challenges was soon to follow, leaving Tamra utterly frustrated and feeling helpless for years.
Tamra was ineligible for most immediate relief funds. “A lot of the money that was being handed out was for everybody that lost, that was completely burned out. Because [my house] was partially burnt, I wasn’t able to get it,” she explains, recounting that, “technically [the fire] stopped two streets over, but there was a spot fire here.”
What seemed lucky at first would sour in the weeks and months to come. While the house was still there after the fire, the roof had incurred some damage from embers, damage that Tamra, a single mother with limited income, couldn’t afford to repair on her own just with her means.
Tamra South shows the damaged roof of her house. Photo/Huan Xun Chan
The first trouble to ensue due to problems with the roof was water leakage caused by rain and snow, which occurred during the first winter and spring after the fire. Next, mold grew throughout the roof, all the insulation, the whole house, everything.
And, the level of damage kept escalating, becoming more and more severe over time. Tamra expounds, “It’s a hazard just being in there, and if you get rain or snow or anything that comes in, it’ll just collapse.” Eventually Butte County “red-tagged” her former home, affixing a sign on the outside: “DO NOT ENTER: UNSAFE TO OCCUPY.” “Nothing on this is repairable now,” Tamra shares sadly, “this whole place is totaled.”
A Beacon of Hope
And yet, a beacon of hope did appear on the horizon for Tamra South. Along her journey, Baba Kauna Mujamal, a disaster case manager working for Tzu Chi USA in Northern California, began to accompany Tamra and help her build a recovery plan. Baba saw the deterioration in Tamra’s former home himself after the mold set in and reported: “In terms of living, it’s really bad. It’s heavily molded, a very strong smell the moment you walk in.”
Finding a permanent solution to resolve Tamra’s housing needs will take some time. However, the first steps in a solid direction materialized in March 2020, when Tzu Chi USA’s disaster case management team helped the family acquire a second-hand trailer. Tzu Chi USA paid for the trailer, while Tamra’s case manager, Baba, was the one who connected Tamra with Desiree Belding, who was selling the home.
Desiree Belding and her family had owned the trailer for 19 years and created many happy memories in this home. “We’re hoping that this gives her great memories also, and more so, safety. A safe environment to live and raise the family,” Desiree told the Tzu Chi team, keeping Tamra and her family close to heart. Besides the affordable sales price she had set, Desiree offered an additional kindness by transporting the trailer to the site herself at no extra cost.
Tamra South (middle) receives a trailer with the help of Tzu Chi’s disaster case manager Baba Kauna Mujamal (second left). Photos/Huan Xun Chan
Tamra has been living in the trailer since then while her teenage children stay at a family member’s house. Alas, the space is too cramped for everyone to share comfortably, so they opted for this arrangement for the time being.
For Tamra, the recovery goal has never shifted, and it is to rebuild her original home. However, securing sufficient funding is still a mountain to climb before achieving this dream. Moreover, to rebuild, she needs more funds than other survivors since she has to pay to demolish and remove the damaged structure and trees on the property before construction can begin.
It is a challenge for Tamra South to keep her property clean and tidy under the current circumstances. Photos/Huan Xun Chan
A Difficult Path Ahead
There’s no doubt about how difficult the road ahead can be for many wildfire survivors. Families without insurance or whose disaster damage situation makes their homes ineligible for coverage under their plan can find themselves facing an uphill battle as they struggle to recover. Additionally, lenders typically require a sustainable strategy, but many survivors have lost their source of income following a disaster.
Tzu Chi USA’s disaster case managers shoulder the responsibility of formulating a feasible recovery plan on a case by case basis. They will also seek and help secure appropriate resources that may be available. The team is currently in charge of 46 active cases progressing towards full disaster recovery. As of April 16, 2021, the disaster case management team has also helped 15 families obtain stable housing, including rentals, and four families secure temporary accommodation, such as fifth-wheel trailers.
By supporting Tzu Chi USA’s missions, you can be part of our team, helping in many ways: Including lifting wildfire survivors onto increasingly solid ground as they steadfastly march towards full disaster recovery and permanent housing.