Tzu Chi Volunteers Reunite with CZU Lightning Complex fire Survivors in Last Chance

Northwest  | July 15, 2021
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Volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region in the Silicon Valley visit a small mountain community known as Last Chance to provide care for forest fire survivors, and a local named Victoria gives back via a filled bamboo bank. Photo/Judy Liao

Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Diana Chang, Adriana DiBenedetto

On the first Sunday in May, volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region visited a small mountain community known as Last Chance to provide care for forest fire survivors. 

It was almost noon by the time volunteers arrived. They had traveled through the only mountain path in or out of the community. Covered in dust, volunteers quickly unloaded a truckload of relief materials and vegetarian meal boxes. These were prepared in advance for nearly 30 community members who were holding a monthly forest fire reconstruction meeting. 

The CZU Lightning Complex fires were sparked in Northern California beginning on August 16th, 2020, and resulted from a thunderstorm that produced nearly 11,000 bolts of lightning. The lightning strikes tragically ignited hundreds of fires throughout California, consuming 1,490 structures and spanning 86,509 acres. Soon after, volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region began providing disaster relief in the hopes of empowering survivors with the love and resources needed to rebuild their lives. 

Signs of the fire can still be seen on the bodies of trees lining the only road in and out of the community. Photo/Andy Chiang

The small mountain community known as Last Chance is a gathering place for residents who’ve lived in an environmentally friendly manner close to the land for decades. Without the use of commercial hydropower, they rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. However, dozens of houses in the community were devastated by the blaze, and due to its remote location, reconstruction has been an ongoing challenge. After the fire was contained, residents held reconstruction meetings in the outdoor plaza of the community on the first Sunday of each month. For eight months, residents were only able to clean up their damaged homes, as reconstruction plans were still in the discussion stage due to complicated application and planning procedures. The road to reconstruction is indeed long and winding, frequently testing the courage and patience of survivors. And therefore, Tzu Chi volunteers strive to be there through it all.

Residents from Last Chance give Tzu Chi volunteers a handwritten thank you card. Photo/Andy Chiang

Tzu Chi volunteers in the Bay Area first met locals from Last Chance during an emergency cash card distribution in the summer of 2020 and have been in touch ever since, assisting the community through the provision of cash cards and necessities. Most residents whose homes faced severe damages rented homes in the small towns below the mountain. Recently, some locals have moved back to the community and reside in trailers or tents. However, temperatures can drop to freezing in the mountains at night. Chi-Jen Huang, a Tzu Chi volunteer who has cared for residents from the community since Tzu Chi’s relief efforts began, expressed that, “As such, Tzu Chi has prepared blankets and supplies to care for the needs of residents in the mountains.”

On the day of the meeting, Tzu Chi volunteers brought 25 vegetarian lunch boxes graciously provided by Sumo, a Japanese restaurant in the Bay Area.

Sumo, a Japanese restaurant in the Bay Area, generously provides 25 vegetarian lunch boxes for free. Photo/Judy Liao

A Bamboo Bank Filled with Love

Upon witnessing the arrival of Tzu Chi volunteers, Victoria Culjan swiftly handed them a bamboo bank filled with dollar bills and coins. When Victoria received Tzu Chi’s emergency cash card in the summer of 2020, she also took home an empty bamboo bank, determined to aid someone else someday, and ensure they know they’re not alone. The emergency cash card helped her family purchase food and kitchen utensils after the disaster, easing some of their short-term needs. Previously, she’d learned that the funds for cash card donations are collected from the love of people all over the world. Inspired by its origin and the capacity to make a positive difference, Victoria steadily dropped loose change or dollar bills into the bank each day until she reunited with volunteers again.

When I had some money, the first thing I thought of, of course, is to do something for my own home. But at the same time, I thought of other people in need, as well as you [Tzu Chi volunteers]. I wanted to give some money to Tzu Chi, so that your actions could continue.

Victoria Culjan, CZU Wildfire Survivor

Victoria has lived in Last Chance for 41 years. The 2020 wildfires devastated the homes they built through years of painstaking efforts. Even though they knew reconstruction would take a considerable amount of time and money, the couple still hoped to rebuild their home in the mountains. Victoria looked to the beautiful garden shared by the residents in the community and said, “How can you find such a vibrant garden in the city? The land in the mountain forest has cured me, and I will heal this land as well.” When they first returned after the disaster, all that remained of their garden had been a few insects flitting to and fro. It seemed even the once uninterrupted birdsong had vanished. Slowly, however, the bees have returned. “Bees are the hope of life,” said Victoria. By tending the garden, Victoria and a few community residents regrew all kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Victoria and several community members revitalize their gardens in an attempt to heal this piece of land injured during the CZU Lightning Complex fires. Photo/Andy Chiang

In his haste to escape from the chaos of the rapidly building fire, Victoria’s husband, Bob Culjan, didn’t have time to grab anything. During Tzu Chi’s visit, he gratefully accepted the new jeans volunteers had provided. He also mentioned how he’d read one of Tzu Chi’s publications and learned more about the foundation’s other humanitarian relief missions. As he chatted with volunteers, his eyes shown like dawn’s rays. The joy he exuded was not only from receiving the new clothing, but of finding new friends, and it deeply warmed the hearts of volunteers.

Tzu Chi volunteers provide a new pair of jeans so that Bob can replace his worn-out pair. Photo/Judy Liao

Healing as a Community

This time, Tzu Chi volunteers received four bamboo banks filled with love from four residents of Last Chance. One person had even carefully counted the coin amount one by one and told volunteers the full sum. Extending the bamboo bank to a volunteer, she said, “I want to thank you for your continued kindness. We are still renting a house in the town below. Although there are too many procedures to deal with for the reconstruction of our home, we will take it step-by-step.” When she then received a blue backpack brought by Tzu Chi volunteers, she smiled again and said, “This happens to be my favorite color.”

Care recipients happily accept the blue backpacks brought by Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Andy Chiang

In addition to backpacks, Tzu Chi volunteers also brought blankets, socks, and cleaning supplies. Relief supplies in hand, another resident had thanked volunteers, expressing, “I had set up camp on the open space facing the coast. It is great to have this warm blanket at night.” He held the blanket in one hand and motioned to his bamboo bank in the other: “When I fill the bamboo bank with change, I will call you to come back and bring it back,” he said eagerly.

Tzu Chi volunteers deliver cleaning supplies to survivors in the mountain area. Photo/Andy Chiang

Direct and Practical Assistance

Susie Devergranne was delighted to learn that Tzu Chi volunteers would visit the community again in May. She emailed volunteers asking if they would perhaps bring another one of the backpacks they provided before and one of our signature eco-friendly blankets. When she received the supplies brought by Tzu Chi volunteers, she happily explained how it solved her immediate needs. Susie, her husband, and their 16-year-old son, planned to go to Hawaii in a week and drive a sailboat they had there back to San Francisco. They planned to give the proceeds from selling their boat to a home reconstruction fund. Each with their own backpacks, the three were ready to pack and set off.

Susie’s family has moved back into the area, temporarily living in both a trailer and a tent borrowed from a friend. Photo/Andy Chiang

Jessica Martinez-McKinney was the first resident to be contacted by Tzu Chi in the summer of 2020 when disaster relief cash cards were issued. It was through her help that Tzu Chi volunteers from Silicon Valley learned about the remote community in need of support. Jessica said that Last Chance has been a peaceful safe haven for decades. The residents rely on nature and one another to subsist. Therefore, all the residents were determined to return and rebuild.

Even so, Jessica has expressed deep concerns about returning to the community.

Climate change has changed everything, and I am very worried that the wildfire catastrophe will come again.

Jessica Martinez-McKinney, CZU Wildfire Survivor
Jessica worries that climate change will bring about another tragedy. Photo/Judy Liao

Strength Forever Renewing

Both Joe and his dog had luckily escaped from their home with help from neighbors. After the fire, they returned to the community and continued their life on the mountain from Joe’s car. Joe expressed his thanks to volunteers for providing essential supplies during their last visit, even when he happened to be away. “I am especially fond of that bag of Jing Si noodles,” he said. “It’s really amazing.” 

Joe and his big, friendly dog join the relief event, and he recounts how he drove away from his home in the night while lightning and wildfires were rapidly advancing. Photo/Judy Liao

“We will see you again,” volunteers said as they waved goodbye to the community. And on the path to rebuilding their lives, volunteers know that the strength of this community will only continue to grow alongside the returning flowers and vegetation they’ve so lovingly tended.

Tzu Chi volunteers say their farewells and promise to keep the community close within their hearts. Photo/Judy Liao

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