Facebook Instagram YouTube Contact | tzu chi searc

Good News, Bad News - The Fort McMurray Wildfire

“So-o-o, the good news is that you can have some free cushion covers, but the bad news is…” She burst into laughter and, picking up where I had left off, said, “I don’t have a chair!”

2016 Canada wildfire 2 1000x633
The evacuees may have lost a lot, but what’s important is not to lose the power to laugh, and to love.

She listened to me intently with her big eyes shining bright and her smiling face beaming.

I bent down to her, a girl of about six years old, and said, “This is a coin bank of love. Every time you drop a coin into it, be sure to wish yourself, your family, and the whole world the best. This is important. Maybe one day you can use this bank to help others and give your love to them.”

I then asked, “Do you want this bank of love?”

She nodded, took the bank from me, and hugged it tight to her chest. I put an arm around her and said, “Now you’re rich with love!”

This girl, who was rich because of love, had just lost a lot, perhaps even her home. She had come to the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society (EERSS) distribution center with her family for relief supplies. They were victims of the Fort McMurray wildfire.

In May 2016, a wildfire started southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. It spread across nearly 600,000 hectares (2,300 square miles) before it was brought under control in early July. Though the burnt area was mostly forest, about 2,400 structures were destroyed and over 100,000 people were evacuated ahead of the flames.

People who had lost their homes to the fire had lost almost everything, and those who were evacuated only had time to pack some important documents and a few pieces of luggage before they had to flee for their lives. They needed help. The municipal government of Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, entrusted EERSS, a non-profit organization, to help coordinate the donation/relief effort and set up a distribution center to provide evacuees with necessities.

On May 16, Tzu Chi volunteers from Vancouver set up a station at the EERSS distribution center, offering items such as blankets, pillows, bath towels, and washcloths. Because the temperatures were still low at night, hovering around 4°C (39°F), the Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan, quickly sent over 4,000 blankets in four air shipments to help out.

While I helped wildfire victims obtain aid items at our station, I also introduced Tzu Chi coin banks to them, encouraging them to save money in the banks to help the needy. One woman, thinking that I was trying to solicit donations from her, said reluctantly, “Okay…”

“No, No!” I quickly explained. “This bank is a present from us. It carries our wish that you’ll be rich with love and that one day when you’re back on your feet you can pay your love forward.”

Her face immediately relaxed into a smile. Taking a coin bank from me, she said, “I will! This is my lucky charm. I’ll keep it safe.”

I truly do believe she’ll get firmly back on her feet and pay her love forward.

The distribution center was divided into several large stations, each offering different kinds of supplies. People had to pick up the items they needed as quickly as possible and then move on to the next station to prevent a jam.

The light, soft blankets provided by Tzu Chi were popular. When we handed one over to an evacuee, we always explained in the short time we had: “This is made from recycled PET bottles.” Our explanations always drew looks of surprise.

2016 Canada wildfire 1 1000x563
Miao Wan-hui (second from left), vice CEO of Tzu Chi Canada, talks to Cindi Hache, executive director of the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society, about aid provided by Tzu Chi.

The Fort McMurray conflagration was the worst wildfire in Canadian history. The demand for the most basic necessities was beyond imagination. The city of Edmonton almost ran out of such supplies as pillows and bath towels. One day, Tzu Chi volunteers who lived in Edmonton scoured the entire city and only managed to secure about 300 pillows from 16 stores. Tzu Chi Canada quickly ordered pillows and bath towels from several manufacturers and had them rushed to the distribution center.

Despite our best efforts, we still sometimes ran short. One day, all our bath towels were picked up before the next shipment was to arrive. After I had helped an elderly woman obtain a blanket and a pillow, we moved on to the area for towels. I said to her, “I have bad news for you: We’ve run out of bath towels. But I have good news for you too: We have washcloths in an assortment of colors from which you may choose.” The woman was a little disappointed she didn’t receive a bath towel, but she seemed happy at the same time that she could pick out washcloths in colors that she preferred.

Another middle-aged woman selected a few washcloths in different colors. I pointed to some chair cushion covers off to one side and said, “These cushion covers come in a variety of patterns and bright colors. You can pick some you like.”

“But I don’t even have a chair,” she said, her voice a little sad. In an attempt to cheer her up, I said with exaggeration, “So-o-o, the good news is that you can have some free cushion covers, but the bad news is…” She burst into laughter and, picking up where I had left off, said, “I don’t have a chair!”

She moved on to her next stop, smiling. Looking at her walk away, I came to realize once more that as Tzu Chi volunteers, we hope to provide not only material aid, but more importantly love, comfort, hope, and strength.

Extracted from Tzu Chi Quarterly, Fall 2016 (Taiwan)

Related Articles