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Compassion Under Extreme Duress

What Being in Community Really Means

Compassion Under Extreme Duress

by Rachael Watcher

On November 8th at around 6 AM a fire, allegedly started by a faulty Pacific Gas & Electric line, began at Pulga on Highway 70 in Butte County, northern California. It quickly spread to the neighboring towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Concow. For a day it grew 100 yards a second. It came so fast that the first warning many had was the light of the fire in their neighbors’ yards or their own. People evacuated, often with nothing more than their pajamas and pets.

The fire burned so hot that appliances melted. In the home I owned in Concow, where my niece was living, the well head and pump melted so completely that it sealed my well with a puddle of steel. Even more seriously, the fire burned so hot that it burned out the roots of trees and other plant systems, destroying invaluable water shed. To add to these issues, the rains that put out the fire were torrential, the heavy runoff down rushing canyons denuded of watershed, causing floods filled with fire debris and mud.

By now the nation knows that ultimately the entire towns of Paradise and Concow were lost, as well as much of Magalia. Two hundred and fifty square miles of forest, over 18,000 homes and business structures, and, at current count, 88 human lives, along with untold domestic animals and wild life, were lost. With few exceptions, the human lives lost were 65 years of age and older. At the height of the fire more than 50,000 evacuees flooded into Chico and Oroville, where I live, with 30,000 still displaced as of this writing. It is now the deadliest wildfire in the United States since 1918.

In comparison to other California cities, Chico and Oroville are small communities with the limited resources that being a small community implies. Before the end of that day, the Walmart parking lots in both towns were filled to capacity with tents and RVs. The “official” evacuation sites and county fairgrounds soon filled to capacity and then overflowed as the displaced continued to arrive. By the third day, the small town of Gridley was opening sites to take up the victims.

More than a month later, many are still living in RVs and tents. Fortunately, the threatened failure of the Oroville damn in February of 2017 and the subsequent evacuation of Oroville and cities down river helped in small part to prepare us. Yet our communities were in no way ready for the massive impact of this disaster. A sudden influx of this number of people with no food or shelter nor, in many cases, even jobs, could well have strained resources past the breaking point, causing the spread of health and sanitary disasters. What happened instead was a true testament to the generosity of the human spirit.

Interfaith Compassion

The Buddhist organization ­­­­­­­­­­Tzu Chi, whose local office is in San Jose, California, had a booth at the Disaster Recovery Center in Chico giving out checks to any in need, with $500 going to individuals and more to families depending upon their circumstances.

If everyone contributes their love, a crisis can be transformed into an opportunity and a disaster into a blessing. – Tze Chi aphorism

Tze Chi is now on Facebook asking that anyone in need fill out their form online so further funds can be distributed. This is an international organization with over 70 offices around the world, raising funds solely for the purpose of helping people during emergencies and disasters.

The Sikhs and Mennonites are also actively supporting community here. The Sikhs opened their gurdwaras (sanctuaries) for evacuees, and the Mennonites served meals at the Church of the Nazarene and provided shower trailers there for those in need. Nazarene churches located in both Oroville and Chico were designated as main evacuation sites and Red Cross shelters.

Jim Collins of Saint Thomas More Parish in Paradise, where they lost considerable church property, shared the following. The Catholic Church, which considers all people living within their parish to be parishioners, has to date raised more than half a million dollars, with early distributions going out in gift cards. A donation from individuals in Santa Barbara of $120,000 has provided rent for ten families, and the process for long-term assessment of need is going forward, with a storage unit set up to collect items which will be needed as folks start to rebuild.


Rabbi Sara Abrams from Chico said that support has flooded in from Jewish organizations, including IsraAid, an international Humanitarian Aid NGO based in Israel. While only ten of their members lost homes, they have reached out to the greater community as well. They’ve raised over $22,000, most of it being distributed in gift cards. They are providing therapy workshops for people and after-school programs for children. They have sponsored dinners for social workers as well. Jewish communities in nearby Sonoma County sent gift baskets with ritual items for Jewish families who lost their homes.

I spoke with Rasha Salih from the Islamic Center of Chico who said that donations were coming in from as far away as Houston, with large donations from San Francisco and Sacramento, the two closest big cities to the devastated areas. They had received $20,000 in gift cards to date, with 90 percent of those funds coming from individual Muslims and mosques. Trucks came down from Oregon with food, clothing, blankets, sleeping bags, and other essentials, and the Mosque’s bathing facilities were opened to evacuees. An older Muslim originally from Pakistan and now living in Sacramento ordered a truckload of sweats and socks, which he accompanied up to the Chico Islamic Center as soon as he heard about the fire. They were the first goods that the Islamic Center had to distribute.

In a county where almost 50 percent of the population identifies as non-religious, the human spirit shown brightly as restaurants and gas stations gave unstintingly of free meals and gas. Walmart was flooded with folks buying tents, blankets, and pillows along with items of personal hygiene, all to donate to those in need, cash and real goods flowing in as well.

Overflowing Generosity

Many animals were separated from their owners, and over 100 injured cats were sent to San Francisco to be treated. A hanger at the Chico airport was full of farm animals. Shelters for smaller animals were under pressure from food shortages. Tradewinds Transportation and Coastal Farm & Ranch animal feed division plus other donors of Albany, Oregon stepped up. After hearing about the shortage of food for the displaced animals, they sent a fleet of trucks over 400 miles with 90 tons of feed for everything from cows to cats.

Photo:    Wikimedia

Photo: Wikimedia

With three dogs from a family who cannot currently keep them and my backyard camp trailer occupied by a friend, I am only one example of all those who have opened their homes, RVs (recreational vehicles), and trailers to fire victims. One young couple found a 93-year-old man living in his car after having evacuated Paradise. They took him home, helping him contact family and giving him a room of his own for as long as he wished to stay. Others have either given away or donated, at far below cost, their own recreational vehicles to families in need. A person from San Diego donated $1,000 to each student and teacher of Paradise High School, and the Alburn California High School basketball team surprised the Paradise basketball team with new uniforms and equipment when they showed up to play Alburn on the day of the fire.

The local Home Depot donated $500,000 to the community. One woman came into the Home Depot from the evacuation routes after spending eight hours on a road that normally takes 20 minutes to drive. She was looking for somewhere to place an older couple that the Sheriff had put into her car on the way out of Paradise. She had no idea who they were but was more concerned about their welfare and ability to contact family than her own, even though she had no more than her car left to her name. She was the first of many that I would meet in the following days.

Though most with whom I have spoken say that donations have tapered off since Christmas, they have all emphasized that this disaster is far from over, and much support will be needed in the months ahead as people struggle to get back on their feet, find new jobs, and rebuild.

As a cashier at the Home Depot, not an evening goes by that my customers and I do not share stories of our mutual loss. People break down and cry when talking about the compassion of complete strangers in their hours of need. Many come behind the counter to hug me and share tears, not only of loss, but of renewed hope because of what these communities have been able to share with them in support and love.

Header Photo: Wikipedia