USA — As soon as news of the blazes broke, volunteers were stepping forward with provisions, organizational aid and moral support.
It was the American Red Cross, and they were calling about a fire.
The caller told Bialac-Jehle, 52, a member of the organization’s disaster action team, that she was needed immediately at Sylmar High School to help victims who had fled there. So she threw on some clothes, hopped in the car and sped up the 405.
The Topanga Canyon resident, whose own neighborhood has been threatened by fires in the past, first felt relief. “It wasn’t us this time,” she remembers thinking.
But as she approached the blazing hills, she began to realize that flames are undiscerning. But for luck, the volunteers aren’t any different from the victims. “We are them,” she said. “And they are us.” Bialac-Jehle has been working nearly around the clock to tend to the 300 displaced people living on cots at Sylmar High. She is one of hundreds of volunteers who stepped forward this weekend to help those displaced by three wildfires that have scorched thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes throughout Southern California. The volunteers mobilized through traditional and unusual means: telephone calls from the Red Cross and Salvation Army, and postings on Internet sites such as Craigslist.org. President-elect Barack Obama used his website to urge supporters to donate to the Salvation Army or the Red Cross.
The Red Cross has funneled $65 million from its National Relief Fund to help fire survivors in California, according to spokeswoman Carmela Burke. Burke could not say how much money the organization raised in Los Angeles but said it expected major donations from local businesses and organizations, including the Los Angeles Lakers, in the coming days.
Much of the volunteerism has been more grass-roots. Craigslist launched a “fire forum” on which posters have offered victims free clothes, spare bedrooms and moral support. Others have volunteered to board displaced animals — including horses, chinchillas and snakes.
Greg Keefe, 53, a carpenter who lives in Venice, offered his services on Craigslist. Once firefighters finish battling the Freeway Complex fire, he plans to set up a tent city in the charred region along the border of Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties and help out however he can. “We’ll clean up the houses and clean up the yards,” said Keefe, who volunteered in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Paul Prunty, 50, of Cypress has his own philosophy about volunteering: “You find a niche and you fill it,” he said.
On Sunday, Prunty rushed to Anaheim Hills after he saw television footage of the destruction the fire there had caused to an apartment complex.
When he arrived at the Cascades apartments, residents were “mobbing” police and fire officials for information on access to their homes. To help defuse the situation, Prunty retrieved a piece of scrap lumber from his minivan and started a bulletin board of the addresses of the homes that had been cleared.
“I’m not extraordinary in any way. I’m not super-heroic,” he said. “But I know that it’s not up to anybody else to make the world a better place; it’s up to me.”