Written by Christina Chang
English translation by: Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
The Kincade Fire in California started in the northern Bay Area on October 23, 2019. To prevent threats or fire hazards to locals due to powerful winds, local officials issued an evacuation plan to thousands of residents living near the fire zone.
On October 29th, the city of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County issued a “code blue” weather advisory, and Tzu Chi volunteers from the Northern California Branch had already prepared to hold a distribution for Kincade fire survivors on October 30th, according to the previous day’s assessment. Over one thousand blankets were delivered into the hands of the wildfire survivors at the shelters during this cold night.
An original plan of delivering blankets to shelters at Santa Rosa Memorial Veteran Building and Sonoma County Fairground at 4 PM on the 30th was momentarily postponed due to the discovery of an immediate need at Cloverdale, a city further north of the shelters. Residents were in dire need of blankets to stay warm throughout such a cold night, and a team of Tzu Chi volunteers was dispatched to Cloverdale for a distribution of 211 eco-blankets.
Delivering Warmth on Cold Nights
Preparations began at approximately 8 AM on the 30th. Ten volunteers from the San Jose Tzu Chi campus helped load one thousand blankets onto the truck. The truck was waiting for a dispatch notice on the south side of the affected area due to the wildfire causing a large-scale power outage in the San Francisco Bay Area.
On that same day, 34 volunteers were mobilized to a distribution site in Santa Rosa. Even with such short notice on the evening before the distribution day, the demand for manpower was fulfilled in less than two hours. Once the notice was sent, volunteers had registered to assist the distribution without hesitation.
Volunteers from the Bay Area who participated in the distribution carpooled together, and drove for nearly two hours to arrive at the site on time at 1 PM. Once they arrived, they immediately put themselves to work with unloading the truck, and began preparation operations.
A Blanket to Stave off the Cold
An ABC reporter had witnessed Tzu Chi volunteers preparing blankets in the vacant space outside the shelter, and reported on the offered relief:
As volunteers were preparing for the distributions at two locations in Santa Rosa, people at shelters began waiting in line for blankets. At 2 PM, volunteers started the simultaneous distribution of blankets at the Santa Rosa Memorial Veteran Building and Sonoma County Fairground.
While distributing blankets, volunteers also offered an attentive ear to locals as they expressed their feelings and concerns after such a harrowing experience. Many said that they could feel a major healing effect from Tzu Chi volunteers because they took the time to listen to them.
The Power of Warmth
Judy Elliott is a local volunteer who is fluent in both English and Spanish. She has helped many displaced residents who do not speak English achieve a sense of calmness, and shared what it’s like living at the shelter. With her help, the residents were able to communicate easily with volunteers, enabling volunteers to gain an in-depth understanding of their current situation.
An elderly woman spoke with volunteers after receiving blankets to learn more about Tzu Chi, the production of eco-blankets, and how people around the world donate to Tzu Chi to help those in need. Touched by the story of love, she immediately donated $10 to show her support for Tzu Chi’s efforts.
Fausto Barcelo, a cargo driver who lived on his own in the small town of Windsor, about 20 minutes north of the city, was forced to evacuate and stayed in the shelter for five days. He mentioned that the shelter was full of wildfire survivors, and even gave his bed to other families who needed it more. He then slept in his vehicle despite cold weather advisory.
Finally Able to Sleep
Eleven-year-old Araceli and her father received blankets for a family of five. While staying at the shelter, she misses her friends from school due to the temporary closure. Upon receiving blankets, they were grateful for the warmth amidst the cold, especially when they’d been staying in the shelter for a few days already.
When Miguel De Jesus evacuated with his family from Windsor, he was worried that the fire would spread toward their home. After receiving the blanket, he said, the warmth from the volunteers gave him more support in such an uncertain future.
An elderly woman had felt it was too difficult to fall asleep at the shelter for the past four days due to the cold. After she received the blanket and touched the soft, thick eco-fabric, she said, “I finally can have a good night’s sleep,” with a smile on her face.
Four cans of homemade cookies labeled with “Thank you” were given to Tzu Chi volunteers as a gift for their efforts. Residents prepared the cookies ahead of time when they knew that a charity organization would be there to distribute blankets.
Distribution on the Way
On the afternoon of the 30th, volunteers used the time between distributions to continue to visit local areas in Santa Rosa. While heading north, a town in Cloverdale, volunteers saw hundreds of residents gathered at the local Fairground. After inquiring after their situation, volunteers learned that although the residents of this city did not need to evacuate, they had been left at a loss for what to do since the 23rd due to gas and power outages. In the two days that had passed, they were also affected by the cold weather advisory, and temperatures at night were close to freezing.
Tzu Chi Northwest Region’s CEO, Mingjing Hsieh, mobilized a team of ten volunteers to help with this urgent distribution of blankets, and nearly 200 blankets are immediately transferred to arrive in Cloverdale from Santa Rosa.
The delivery arrived at 6:15 PM. Upon witnessing Tzu Chi volunteers arriving with warm blankets in the cold, residents cheered and happily as they welcomed the group.
The Much-Needed Supplies on Cold Nights
Katie Young, CEO of the Cloverdale Citrus Fair, said that after locals experienced the gas and power outages, their daily lives had been greatly affected — they could not use appliances at home for cooking or taking a hot bath, for example. Therefore, everyone must gather at the fairground and use the temporary charging stations provided by the power company.
Katie represents the community non-profit organization and had been working together with local restaurants for the past four days. They served three meals a day for the community residents to resolve food concerns.
When Katie saw Tzu Chi volunteers delivering the blankets, she expressed her gratitude for the help as the nights grow colder.
In less than an hour, volunteers distributed 210 blankets, some residents even putting them over their shoulders straight away.
When twelve-year-old Christopher received his blanket, the first thing he did was head over to the Tzu Chi volunteer and, in front of the camera, said “Thank you for the blanket. We really need it now.” Then, he went home with a smile on his face.
After all 210 blankets were distributed, several locals took the initiative to help recycle the empty boxes and clean up the site as a gesture of gratitude and appreciation for the help.
Working Long Hours Voluntarily
Shi Yishu is the volunteer who was in charge of the coordination of the distribution. Beginning early in the morning in San Jose, and finishing at nearly 8 PM after three distribution events, he’d worked long hours despite the pain from previous injuries on his legs. But at the end of the day, he felt joy with his mission accomplished.
Shi Yishu said that after volunteers finished the distribution and returned home at night knowing there was no forced evacuation and that they lived in homes that were not affected by the blackout, they could rest and sleep. But the residents who had been evacuated had been without a place to rest for several days. He felt that working long hours was nothing in comparison.
Wine Country Under Fire Warning
The town of Geyserville was about a 30-minute drive from Santa Rosa. Some terrains were negatively impacted due to their proximity to the Kincade Fire. After the evacuation had been lifted at 4 PM on the 30th, Tzu Chi volunteers entered the wine country for an assessment and visited the affected areas.
On the 23rd, the city was affected by a planned power outage, and the officials issued a mandatory evacuation order. Therefore, on the afternoon of the 30th, only firefighters and police officers were stationed in the town, and residents had not been able to return to their homes.
The Kincade Fire spread rapidly as the wind speed had increased to more than 60 miles per hour when the weather was dry. In the past two years, the experience of previous wildfires had allowed residents to evacuate as soon as possible after receiving the evacuation notice. Fortunately, this wildfire did not cause any loss of life.
It was near sunset after 4 PM, and the dim light reflected on the large vineyards that had been burned and destroyed by the fire. The blackened frame of a car that had burned in the fire was one of the few things that remained in sight in the empty town. It was a stark contrast to the memory of workers busily harvesting grapes, and tourists happily roaming the streets.
The electricity is to resume after 5 PM as the wildfires are gradually brought under control. Tzu Chi volunteers hope that with the love, care, and warm blankets they’d provided, residents will be able to sleep a little better on this road to recovery.