Of the Baker City Herald

A worst-than-expected fire season and slower-than-hoped for donations have put the local chapter of the American Red Cross in an even worse financial situation than it was in last fall, chapter director Beverly Higley said.

And just as it was this time last year, the chapter is weeks away from closing its doors unless like it did last year it gets a significant financial boost from the residents of Baker and Union counties, whom the chapter serves.

The chapter budgeted for six house fires in the two counties during the past fiscal year, which runs from July 1 through June 30. But 15 families needed the specialized service the Red Cross provides immediately after house fires, including emergency shelter, food and clothing.

On top of the personal loss that house fires brought to area families, each fire cost the local chapter an average of $1,000, Higley said.

In addition to those families touched by fires, the local chapter has aided four other families since the current fiscal year began July 1.

The bottom line: the chapter has about a month's worth of operating budget remaining. It will conduct its annual holiday fund-raising this fall, and a special appeal has gone out to every homeowner in Baker County.

But if it can't raise enough money in the two counties to fund its annual $140,000 budget, it will have to cease operations.

andquot;We've got just weeks to go,andquot; Higley said. andquot;Within the next six weeks, unless something drastic happens, we'll have to shut down.andquot;

That closure would eliminate not only the Red Cross' response to the victims of fires, but other services, such as CPR instruction, bicycle safety and the set-up and management of emergency shelters.

Also lost would be the kind of training that sent Red Cross counselors and police volunteers from eastern Oregon to the New York City area following the terrorist attacks last year.

Chapter officials and board members made a similar plea last fall, when the overwhelming charitable response to the victims of 9/11 slowed local giving, Higley said.

andquot;We're not crying wolf at all,andquot; she said of the current financial crisis. andquot;This wolf is real, and he's snapping at our heels.andquot;

The Red Cross has more than 200 volunteers in Baker County alone, Higley said, all of whom give their time and treasure to receive the training and perform the services traditionally associated with the Red Cross.

The money in the annual budget goes to support Higley, the agency's only full-time employee; a part-time employee in each county; and to pay modest rent and office up-keep at each location.

In Baker City, the Red Cross is housed in the YMCA gym, 2020 Church Street. It pays $200 per month to the YMCA in rent.

andquot;We certainly can't complain about the rent,andquot; Higley said. andquot;But we can't pay it if we don't have it.andquot;

On the wall is a collection of letters of appreciation from area families affected by tragedy. One reads: andquot;Dear Beverly (and all the Red Cross workers), We greatly appreciate the help you gave us when our house burned down. I don't know what we would have done without your help.andquot;

None of the money raised locally goes to pay national dues, Higley said. That money is raised through fees for safety courses that the Red Cross offers.

For more information on aiding local Red Cross efforts, call 523-2231. Donations may be mailed to P.O. Box 1024, Baker City, OR, 97814.