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Why is help still needed?

When I offered to write a short article for someone about why help for Butte Fire survivors was still needed I thought nothing of it. That is, until I sat down to write it. I just stared. That was two days ago. I am still staring at this paper. I feel like I am in college trying to write a final essay. Why is this so hard for me? Because I find it overwhelming? Difficult to express clearly? With help and input from others, here is the answer we came up with.

How survivors of the Butte Fire have fared since losing their homes has varied greatly from person to person. What is certain, there has not been enough continued support.

Hundreds (if not more than 1,000) of displaced people (more than 500 residences were lost to the fire) are living in inadequate conditions. They are confounded by their situation, and at a loss for what they are going to do. Many do not have potable water, if they have water at all. They are toileting in the sticks that used to be forest. They are sleeping on the bare ground if they are not fortunate to have a tarp. They do not enjoy a hot meal. They are waking up to frost and constant dampness that sleeping outdoors will bring (seniors are especially vulnerable to health problems in this environment.) Basic needs remain unmet.

This encampment of a 55 year-old, single woman, was collapsed by this week’s rain. Common Ground Senior Services found her and are helping, along with many grass roots volunteers.

“Once our basic needs are met, and critical tools are replaced, we can again take care of ourselves, and the needs of others. But until the basic human needs are met, we are lost” says an anonymous Butte Fire Survivor. The fire moved so quickly and in such an unpredictable manner, according to a Cal Fire Coordinator, that once a decision point (a predictable condition that would activate a specific plan, such as evacuation) was created, the fire had already outrun that condition. This forced many people to literally flee, without an advanced warning system, literally with the fire at their heels.

Even those who are doing “well” (have some kind of shelter, warm or dry, cold or wet, depending on whether they had insurance) are grieving, depressed, mired in “red tape”, and desperate for help to protect their land from erosion, to protect their roads from wash-out, to find food and shelter, a way to communicate, and a way to travel to resources. Because the county simply cannot afford what it will take to protect some of the most critically effected roads, they will be closing them in areas where people are living. The residents have no choice but to protect their ingress/egress on their own. That means stopping erosion from the road all the way up to the top of steep hills and around water ways.

There are multiple utility poles that have been burned down, and will cost tens of thousands to replace just to get communication and energy abilities. There is an ATT mini tower in Mountain Ranch, but the connection does not reach the most damaged areas of the burn zone, where people are most in need. Many of the survivors have lost their vehicles to the fire and having a difficult time transporting to areas of help and communication.

Yes, some had insurance, but they are not paying quickly, or much. Yes there is FEMA, but the maximum payout for home owners is a little over $32,000 and for renters it is a little over $2,000. More than 100 people still have been unable to apply for FEMA, and more who are not eligible for benefits for one reason or another. We hesitate to say what the County’s emergency plan was, as we volunteers are too busy helping individuals with moving, sheltering, clothing, and feeding animals and people. We do feel these needs are more effectively served with a government-sized effort (that’s short for “not sure what they had in mind”), we just haven’t seen enough of it.

We have been asked, “Why don’t they just leave? Why did they go back?” Many of the survivors are physically and economically limited. Some are still out there doing the work, because there is no other choice. Many have animals they cannot bear to be separated from, pets or livestock, and their land is the only refuge for them. Having met Rick who lost everything but his statue of St. Frances and his animals, it is clear to Mona and Sara that bringing the animals home had the effect of breathing life back to Rick’s family land.

Many survivors have a deep love for their property and its rich history. Some of these homesteads go back to the 1800’s; for many there is a strong tie to the land and heritage here. The loss of family history and heirlooms has been devastating. There is no replacing things like this but showing some compassion and understanding for the grief many are feeling helps. Mona spoke to a woman named Nancy who was so grateful just to have someone listen; she explained that she viewed the loss of generations of heirlooms as a proper cremation of the past, and what she was able to keep with her has even more value. Her spirit was not burned; many of the survivors, as lost as they are, are hopeful despite their desperate need.

When a disaster strikes there is an outpour of support which quickly turns to a trickle. Some of the temporary fixes and help have left. The free laundry and showers in Mountain Ranch are gone. Meals there have been reduced and are dependent completely on donations and volunteers. Those staying with friends, relatives and in hotels will soon have to leave and find other more permanent housing solutions at affordable rates. Many have been bouncing around from place to place and this makes it difficult to return to a “normal” life. Even the presence of FEMA and Red Cross will not remain long term.

Grief can make it difficult to function normally. This is a community that is grieving and not only trying to take care of normal everyday things without any of their possessions but also trying to support each other in the process. We are talking about loss on many levels. Loss of possessions yes, but loss of privacy, and the beauty of their environment as well (Imagine all the “landmarks” you use to navigate your way home…they are now gone!). And ultimately, the loss of the ability to take care of and do for themselves. We are volunteers and we are overwhelmed. I cannot even IMAGINE all the stress the victims are going through.

So, if you are thinking the Butte Fire is over, stop assuming someone else is doing the work that needs to be done. As long time Tuolumne and Calaveras county resident, promoter, and philanthropist Jim Stearns wrote, “There's some perception or rationalization that there is enormous help coming in. It's the proverbial 'somebody else is taking care of it' problem. If those who are still warm, dry and relatively wealthy that live within 25 miles of the devastation would give 10 percent of their time and/or resources the problem would largely be handled already. Unfortunately many are buying useless crap for Christmas, taking vacations and ignoring the tragedy their neighbors are facing right over the hill.”

Ok, I think I have found my answer. Why is help still needed?

Because it has been two months and recovery will take 10-15 years. Because there are victims still waiting for basic needs to be met. Because victims are being swallowed by bureaucracy. Because people still feel lost, and confused. Because it is the right thing to do.

If nothing else, help by writing a letter to our government asking for more support for your neighbors. Here is part of one written to Governor Jerry Brown from an extremely dedicated and caring community member and volunteer, Katie Clark (whose childhood and parental home was lost), “We cannot continue to do this alone. More needs to be done, more is not being done. We are only so many people, we only have so much time, we only have so many resources, we only have so much strength, and we only have so much sanity. We need help. We need the help of entities that can handle things on a larger scale than a few hundred exhausted volunteers and citizens. All of our local entities are doing everything they can to try and help. We need more help than this.

We understand, that as a county, we are not a wealthy area. We resist big business and other ventures. We like to live rural, and thrive on tourism. This however, does not mean, that these Californians deserve any less action, help, or attention.”

Thank you in advance for recognizing the continued need, and moving into action to fill that need.

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