Delivering Relief After Wildfires Emerge in the U.S. West

By Jinbao Zhang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto

Community members affected by the Caldor Fire in California are touched by the timely care from Tzu Chi, shedding tears in a volunteers’ warm embrace. Photo/Judy Liao

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The Dixie Fire brings heartbreaking destruction to Greenville. The road to recovery will be a long and arduous one, yet it is also one aided by sincere love. Photo/C.M. Yung

In the summer of 2021, the northwestern United States was gripped by an extended drought, with California experiencing the most extreme dry conditions recorded in a century. Strong winds and scorching weather had paired tragically with exceptionally dry vegetation and low reservoir levels to produce one of the most frightening wildfire seasons the region had ever endured.

All too suddenly, multiple large-scale fires — The Dixie Fire, the Caldor Fire, and the Bootleg Fire — emerged through vast stretches of forested and mountain areas in Northern California and in Oregon. In their wake, the once tranquil landscapes were left scorched, wilted, and desolate, for such expansive mountain fires are extraordinarily difficult to contain and extinguish, and may rage on for months.

Dan McKeague, a Fire Information Officer stationed in the township of Quincy during the Dixie Fire, explained the situation to volunteers:

Northern California has suffered terribly from mountain fires over the past two years due to the extremely dry climate. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a big increase in terms of some of this extreme fire activity, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we’re in this extended drought. These fuels are drier than they ever have been before, and that just really changes your likelihood of ignition, and in general, your fire behavior.

Dan McKeague
Fire Information Officer
U.S. Forest Service

The impacts these crises have brought to the lives of locals have been severe, indeed.

Dan McKeague, a Fire Information Officer from the U.S. Forest Service, kindly speaks with Tzu Chi volunteers about the situation, offering valuable insight. Photo/Kitty Lu

As these devastating wildfires raged and unfurled all summer, Tzu Chi volunteers ventured out into the sweltering heat, driving from communities like San Jose, Sacramento, and Portland in the early mornings to reach smoke-filled disaster areas. They rushed to the side of wildfire survivors, delivering their care in person. In addition to crucial emotional support in these distressing times, volunteers provided essential emergency relief supplies and cash cards that help survivors acquire the necessities of their own choosing.

Firefighters Volunteer With Tzu Chi

The Dixie Fire started on July 13, 2021, amidst the scenic beauty of the Feather River Canyon in northeastern California. The climate at that time was so dry that the fire quickly grew out of human control, and severely damaged nearby towns. Greenville was one such town almost completely destroyed by the fire.

In August, Tzu Chi volunteers from San Jose, Sacramento, and other cities in Northern California traveled for hours to reach Quincy twice to distribute gas cards, cash cards, and emergency relief supplies. They also drove to the Disaster Resource Center (DRC) in Chester, soon after its opening for an additional distribution on September 17, seizing the opportunity to help as swiftly as it arose.

Danny Manning works at the Greenville Fire Department, and his family also resides in Greenville. While Danny worked vigorously to fight the wildfire, his own house was destroyed. In a short space of time, he’d lost all of his material belongings. Danny was fortunately unharmed, however, and Tzu Chi volunteers provided direct relief in the form of gas and cash cards, and additional relief supplies.

“It’s hard to know what we need most after a disaster, so it’s enormously helpful to receive gas cards and cash cards,” expressed Danny. “I sincerely thank Tzu Chi volunteers for the help they have extended to our community. We have nothing right now. I’m glad that Tzu Chi and other community groups came together to help and provide much-needed supplies. Thank you so much!”

Reggie Guy-White is a volunteer fire engine operator in the Greenville Fire Brigade. While Reggie’s house was luckily unaffected by the wildfire, the fire station had been ultimately consumed. As such, Reggie’s fire brigade had no choice but to move to Quincy, where the team incorporated itself into the overall fire-fighting efforts.

On August 20, Reggie used his day off to serve the community in a different way — generously donning one of Tzu Chi’s signature volunteer vests to aid survivors at the Local Assistance Center (LAC). Reggie encountered several familiar faces at the distribution, and shared his experience with volunteers. Normally, his duties necessitate quite some time behind the wheel, and thus, providing his support face-to-face offered much to ponder, and moved him deeply.

Reggie Guy-White joins hands with Tzu Chi volunteers, soon becoming familiar with the distribution process and explaining the concept behind Tzu Chi’s eco-blankets to survivors. Photo/Kitty Lu

Volunteers Reach Out to Caldor Fire Survivors

The Caldor Fire was first reported as of August 14, 2021, and only reached 100% containment on October 21, after having scorched 221,835 acres. In the face of this terrible disaster, the forested town of Grizzly Flats, home to approximately 1,200, was severely burned, tragically leaving little more than ash in its wake. Upon learning about Tzu Chi USA’s humanitarian work in local communities, several residents hoped to find some relief at disaster aid distributions.

Tzu Chi volunteers from Sacramento started disaster assessment in August, and completed the first cash card distributions at the Local Assistance Center on September 3 and 4. On September 23 and 24, more distributions were held at Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region’s Sacramento Service Center to provide direct assistance and spiritual support.

Local Tzu Chi volunteers and the parents of Tzu Chi Youth Association students took part in the distribution efforts. With the help of Tzu Chi volunteers from San Jose, they upheld the relief work as one on scorching days when outdoor temperatures reached over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and the air was densely polluted by smoke.

“Tzu Chi volunteers are the last ones to leave the Center every day,” said Nancy Ku, who was in charge of volunteer coordination on this mission. “Even if the scheduled time has passed, we always make sure that no one else is still waiting in the parking lot and we have served all the people who came for help that day before packing up and leaving.”

It’s vital to Tzu Chi volunteers that survivors know they’re cared for, that they feel truly heard, and that no one leaves the distribution without receiving help. And indeed, the strength, courage, and hope expressed by survivors at these events will forever be held in the hearts of volunteers. 

Tzu Chi volunteers enter the Caldor Fire area to assess the situation. Photo/Judy Liao
The day is hot and the air is hazardous, but Tzu Chi volunteers successfully complete the registration and distribution for Caldor Fire survivors so that everyone can receive their cash cards on the same day. Photo/Judy Liao

“I heard an eight-year-old girl whose mother had come to receive the cash card say that the dedication of Tzu Chi volunteers inspired her to want to help others when she grows up,” said Peggy Lee, a volunteer Spanish translator. “I was deeply moved by her words.”

Portland on the Horizon

The Bootleg Fire started near Beatty, Oregon, on July 6, and on July 12, the Log Fire sparked. On July 20, the two fires merged, becoming the second-largest U.S. wildfire of the 2021 season, burning a total of 413,765 acres. The town of Bly, home to 161 families, is located in Klamath County, and is one of the Bootleg Fire’s hardest-hit areas. The blaze left little intact in its wake.

The Bootleg Fire’s aftermath in Bly. Photo/Cindy Schmidt

Upon receiving an invitation from the Oregon Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (ORVOAD), which is the state chapter of the National VOAD, Tzu Chi volunteers from the Portland area were stationed at the Multi-Agency Resource Center set up by the government in Bly Stadium from August 27 to August 29. Here, volunteers held their first distributions of cash cards for the wildfire survivors. On September 18, they went to Bly again to continue their relief efforts.

Bly is approximately 300 miles from Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region’s Portland Service Center, making it a five-and-a-half-hour journey each way. When volunteers first distributed supplies on August 28, they had also planned a trip to the affected areas for assessment.

Portland volunteers drive for five and a half hours to reach Bly, one of the Bootleg Fire’s hardest-hit areas, to offer cash cards and emergency supplies to survivors. Photo/Jinzhi Lin

However, after driving for several hours and approaching the disaster area, they discovered the road was too rugged to navigate together. One of the three vehicles was unable to move forward and had to turn back, while the other two continued to push through the long stretch of scorched land before they finally arrived at the remote town where even the postal service did not reach. Bly was an incredibly self-sufficient community where residents acquired much of their living essentials straight from the land around them. Sadly, the fire consumed the homes they had worked to build for years, and many didn’t have insurance. Thus, few funds with which to rebuild their homes were available. “Everyone asked, why didn’t you purchase fire insurance?” a local resident named Gage Clark said as he stood upon his scorched land. “We wanted to, but no one would sell it to us because the fire station is too far away.” The volunteers’ blue shirts and white trousers were a stark contrast in color amid the gray landscape, yet when they handed the care packages to survivors, fresh seeds of hope seemed to sprout all around. “We acted according to Master Cheng Yen’s teachings,” said Michelle Liang, a Tzu Chi Portland volunteer. “If there are people in distress that cannot come to us, then we have to bring hope to them. “It took us twelve hours to make this trip, but it didn’t feel difficult or far since we were motivated by love.”

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