Red Cross settles into familiar roll in Coal Seam fire | AspenTimes.com

Red Cross settles into familiar roll in Coal Seam fire

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

As flames moved rapidly into neighborhoods at the edge of West Glenwood Springs, the American Red Cross sheltered and fed the victims and everyone else who was evacuated.

After more than two dozen families had lost their homes in the Coal Seam fire, the Red Cross stationed counselors at Glenwood Springs High School to help victims cope.

And currently the organization is issuing vouchers to help people make their mortgage, cover first, last and deposit on a new place to rent, and feed and clothe themselves for the near and medium term.

Agency officials say it is likely far more money from the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund will be spent on assisting people in Glenwood Springs than is raised in a regional fund-raising campaign that has been under way since the fire started on June 8.

“Our biggest thing is making sure that all the needs of the victims are met,” said John Drenth, executive director of the Red Cross Western Colorado Chapter.

A worthy goal. But there remains an air of suspicion toward the American Red Cross left over from its decision last fall to set aside for future disasters donations given in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. That decision was ultimately rescinded. Red Cross officials now say 100 percent of the Liberty Fund is being distributed to victims of the attacks.

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But that hasn’t stopped a number of banks and the city of Glenwood from setting up an alternative giving program to ensure donations stay in the valley. Money given at Mesa National Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, WestStar Bank, U.S. Bank and the Bank of Colorado will be administered by a committee appointed by the Glenwood Springs City Council.

“We’ve gone with that option to ensure all the money stays in the community,” said John Masur, a senior vice president with WestStar. “We feel it’s important that all these funds stay local.”

Mesa National branch president Scott Sobke said his bank donated thousands of dollars to start a fund for victims on June 10. But it has refrained from taking deposits from the general public until a plan for distributing the money was in place Friday.

Both executives said they were concerned that donations sent on to the Red Cross would ultimately be spent somewhere else.

Sobke said the plan calls for the city to appoint a committee that will determine how to distribute the money. It will be a big task, he noted, because the committee is going to need to determine who qualifies and will set criteria for receiving aid.

“Banks don’t generally want to get involved in deciding who gets the money,” Sobke said.

Most of the homes that were affected by the fire, which has burned over 11,000 acres on three sides of Glenwood Springs, are located in unincorporated sections of Garfield County. The county was originally asked to administer the local fund, Sobke said, but it declined.

Alpine Bank is directing money both to the Red Cross and the city-administered fund, depending on where people say they want their donation to go. Alpine Bank officer Kris Springsteel said the bank has so far remitted more than $47,000 in local donations to the Red Cross on the condition that it be spent locally.

“And there is more money coming in every day,” she added. That money is coming in the form of checks, piggy banks and business donations raised in jars next to cash registers.

“There are some people who will come in and give whatever they have in their wallet, whether its $50 or $12,” Springsteel said.

Alpine Bank has also been forwarding donations of food and clothing to the Defiance Thrift Store and other organizations better suited than banks for distributing such items.

Banks are offering interest-free loans to victims, as well.

Red Cross officials say that local donors can direct their money to be spent wherever and however, within limits, they choose.

“If they designate it to the Coal Seam fire, we’ll honor that,” said Marie Wheatley, public support officer for the agency’s Denver chapter.

Wheatley explained that all the fires burning in Colorado have been classified as a single Type 4 disaster, the second most serious of the Red Cross’ five-tier classification system. The Type 4 classification freed up money from the organization’s national disaster relief fund to pay for assistance.

Local chapters are obligated to raise funds during and after the fires to help replenish the disaster relief fund, so the agency is ready for the next catastrophe, wherever and whenever it may occur, Wheatley said.

Victims of the Coal Seam fire looking for assistance from the Red Cross need to go to the family services center set up at Glenwood High School.

“People can come in and we get them into the system, then we give them whatever it is that fits their needs,” said Drenth.

The Red Cross does not give victims cash. Instead, it issues vouchers for food, rent, a mortgage, car repairs or whatever is needed.

Although 28 homes in the Glenwood Springs area were lost on June 8-9, the Iron Mountain fire outside Colorado Springs was much more destructive, destroying or severely damaging close to 100 houses.

Currently, the top two fires in everybody’s sights are the Hayman fire, which has burned across more than 100,000 acres southwest of Denver, and the Mission Ridge fire near Durango.

The Red Cross is in fact spending millions of dollars to assist victims from several fires who have lost homes and other property in Colorado this year.

“It’s important to remember,” Drenth added, “the folks in the Western Colorado Chapter of the Red Cross are out there helping their neighbors.”

Drenth said he will answer any questions about the Red Cross at 970-242-4851.