Stanislaus Red Cross running out of cash

A wave of house fires during the past week has put more than a dozen people out of their homes and drained already thin resources at the American Red Cross in Stanislaus County.

Volunteers who provide shelter, clothes and food to those burned out of their homes responded to seven fires since Sept. 2, according to the Red Cross. Rebecca Ciszek, executive director of the American Red Cross Stanislaus chapter, said the total cost for the hotel rooms and other necessities is expected to climb to nearly $31,000.

That would leave $2,000 to help victims of future fires, until donations and money from its national office arrive.

And the season for house fires picks up when the mercury drops; people turn on the heat and light candles and Christmas trees, she said. "So the fact that this is hitting so hard now, we're not going to be ready," Ciszek said.

The chapter started its fiscal year in July in a precarious spot: A $30,000 grant it used to get hasn't been available for the past two years, and won't be until 2009, Ciszek said. Most of the account's money comes from small donors. Moreover, the chapter spent close to $90,000 in emergency fire assistance last year -- close to double what it would spend in a typical year.

And then this week hit.

"It just hasn't stopped," Ciszek said. "It's just been a heck of a week."

On Sept. 7 a fire at a duplex on Larkin Avenue in Modesto displaced two families. Two days later there was an apartment fire on MacDougal Street, also in Modesto, which displaced two more families. The following day, Monday, fires on Santa Cruz Avenue and Coffee Road in Modesto each displaced another family, according to Jim Money, emergency resources director for the Red Cross.

The final straw was the fire early Tuesday morning at Oak Haven Senior Housing, where 20 seniors were displaced from their apartments. Six went to stay with relatives; the Red Cross provided motel rooms for the other 14. The cost for everything from pastries provided during the first night, to vouchers for clothing for victims, and gas money for workers to travel between Modesto and Oakdale, is projected at $20,000 -- half of which Ciszek said she hopes will be reimbursed by the Red Cross national office.

In the meantime, she is asking for help for future disasters. She spent Friday on the telephone calling potential donors.

"We are committed to helping the community, and that comes through the community donations," she said.

"You know how at Thanksgiving time the call is out for local donations when there aren't enough turkeys? This is like that, only we're providing critical services to our community, and we never know when or how intense the need is going to be."

Donations can be sent to the American Red Cross Stanislaus Chapter at 1230 Sixth St., Modesto, 95354 or www.arcscc.org. Donations can be marked specifically for Stanislaus County.

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.