Written by Huanxun Chan
Translated by Huanxun Chan
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
On November 8th, 2018, the Camp Fire tragically destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County, CA, and devastated the nearby communities of Magalia and Concow. To date, the Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s recorded history, its flames engulfing 153,336 acres of land, and destroying 18,800 structures. Tzu Chi volunteers quickly mobilized in response to the urgent call for aid, and delivered comfort and relief in-person to those in need.
Over the course of two years, Tzu Chi’s long-term Camp Fire recovery team has concentrated their efforts on the two communities that continue to struggle with limited resources — Magalia and Concow. The team is helping survivors rebuild their lives by providing disaster case management services and resources to the community through distribution events and medical outreach. “The recovery progress over two years has been slow,” said Minjhing Hsieh, the executive director for Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region. “The government’s resources are ample, but the application process for each step is particularly challenging to the survivors. Therefore, the number of families settling down with stable housing is thin. We have decided to go through the journey with them. We will explore different ways and solutions to help them, hoping that the community’s residents can regain their sustainable lives.”
Together, We Pray
With the beginning of winter, Butte County experienced a substantial drop in temperature, the sky encircled by dense and turbulent clouds. The bits of blue that peek through, however, served as reminders that the North Complex Fire had subsided at last.
November 8th, 2020, marked the second anniversary of the Camp Fire, and that morning, the first snow of the year fell in Concow.
In the Lake Concow Campground, there waits an empty space among the tall cedar trees, pines, and oak trees. A group of people from the Maidu tribe wearing traditional garb stood in a circle, ready to offer their prayers on this day of tremendous significance in all of their lives.
Six Tzu Chi volunteers came from San Jose and Chico to attend the ceremony, walking with members of the tribe to be seated among the trees. The familiar faces of other community members and Tzu Chi’s disaster case management clients were seated nearby as well. The attendees formed a neat outer ring with the inner ring consisting of dancers, and in the very center, a bonfire. The tribe’s leader hosted the ceremony, taking a reverent moment to explain the rituals and their meaning in English, and then led prayers in the Maidu language. As the Maidu leader chanted the songs of prayer, others followed with traditional percussion, and dancers wearing feather headdresses performed around the bonfire in a counterclockwise direction. The entire ceremony lasted for 80 minutes, and the sincere prayer in the midst of mother nature was deeply moving to witness.
“The prayer has included the expression of loving and being respectful to nature,” Hsieh expressed after the event. “It also says in this cosmic and boundless universe, in the face of disasters and calamities, human beings should be humbled, opening our hearts to love all sentient beings, and protecting nature. Wow! How familiar this is to the Tzu Chi members!” To prevent interruptions, cameras were prohibited from filming the event, and every participant was thus able to devote their full attention to their own interconnection with nature and the prayer.
Bringing Warmth To Old Friends
Ever since the Camp Fire erupted and caused massive destruction, Tzu Chi volunteers have been providing their care to the families residing in Concow. While a few residents have rebuilt and settled into their new lives, most are still on their journey to recovery. On the two-year anniversary, Tzu Chi volunteers visited survivors that have not reconnected with volunteers for some time.
Although residing in a high-risk fire zone, the Moak family’s home, fortunately, did survive the 2018 Camp Fire and 2020 North Complex Fire. When members of the Concow community gather during the Camp Fire anniversary, Pete Moak shares Native American’s experience with fire prevention, and encourages the community to collaborate. Photo by Huan Xun Chan.
Last November, Pines Yankee Hill Hardware opened its space to Tzu Chi volunteers for a winter distribution. This year, volunteers reunited with the store owner, Steve Miller, and gave him an eco-friendly scarf and a bag of Jing Si Instant Rice as warm gifts for the wintertime. Concow resident Kim Stayart also had met with Tzu Chi volunteers the previous spring. Luckily, her home survived the Camp Fire, but because of the pandemic, she had not been able to meet with Tzu Chi volunteers. Once reunited, volunteers gifted her with an eco-scarf and a bag of Jing Si Instant Rice as well. Stayart was appreciative of the items, and vowed to save them for someone else who is in need.
Near Highway 70, Concow residents organized a community lunch at a restaurant for the anniversary. Tzu Chi volunteers joined in this opportunity to distribute more eco-scarves and Jing Si Instant Rice to survivors, delivering their love and warmth through the gifts as colder weather approaches.
An Opportunity To Share
Magalia Community Church has become a vital partner as Tzu Chi works on its long-term Camp Fire recovery efforts. Last year, during the first anniversary of the Camp Fire, Tzu Chi volunteers joined the unveiling of the “Butte Strong” monument at the church. The monument was constructed from the bricks of damaged homes, and is a powerful symbol of the community’s strength of heart, indeed. On the church’s property, approximately 15 households continue to live in RVs and trailers. Tzu Chi volunteers went to each of them with the winter gifts.
Because of the cold weather, attendees at the anniversary event were few in number, but the love was still tangible in the air. While volunteers were waiting, a woman named Aly Gilbert approached the table and expressed her interest in learning about Tzu Chi and its missions. Aly sincerely values the opportunity to discover compelling stories, and shares them on Facebook for others to be inspired. Minjhing Hsieh introduced Tzu Chi and the story behind the Tzu Chi’s eco-friendly items and Jing Si Instant Rice. After learning the stories, Aly Gilbert expressed that she was glad to have visited, and could feel the positive energy from the volunteers.