BANGOR, Maine — This year more than other years the Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross that exists solely on private donations is struggling to stay afloat.
In September, just three months into its budget year, the Pine Tree Chapter had exceeded its $40,000 budget for fire relief, and the need for financial help didn’t end there.
The chapter has since used nearly $30,000 in additional funds pulled from its operating capital and other chapter programs to help the rising number of fire victims to date with five months to go in the budget year.
“We’re at almost three times the rate this year over last year,” Shannon Cox, the chapter’s executive director, said Tuesday of the number of residential fires. She said the Pine Tree Chapter’s coverage area has been averaging two to three house fires a day. The chapter covers Penobscot, Piscataquis, Washington, Aroostook, Waldo, Hancock, Knox and parts of Lincoln counties, making it the second-largest geographic area for coverage and chapter in the United States.
Pine Tree provides fire victims with immediate emergency needs, typically three to five days worth of temporary housing for families that have insurance coverage and longer housing periods for uninsured families. In addition, the chapter provides a week’s worth of groceries for each person and immediate clothing needs, including outer winter gear, if needed.
“It’s a real challenge for Red Cross community chapters across the country faced with kind of this same thing in terms of funding,” Cox said. The Pine Tree Chapter is not unique in that regard, she added. Because the chapter has been in existence since 1919, she believes some people take the organization for granted and simply expect the Red Cross will be at every fire.
“There are community chapters across the country that are closing because financially they can’t afford to stay open,” Cox said. All of the funds that operate the chapter are locally donated and locally disbursed. “What we’re able to raise in communities is what literally goes back out to those communities.”
The Pine Tree Chapter receives no support from the National Red Cross or from state or federal funding sources. There is a common misconception that the chapter is funded through the National Red Cross, but that organization steps in with assistance only during large scale disasters, such as last year’s spring flooding in Aroostook County, according to Cox. Even though the chapter’s region has had three times the number of house fires it has had in any given year before, those statistics still do not warrant intervention on the national organization’s part, she said.
What was unusual this year was the number of house fires that occurred from July through the first of October, Cox said. Those fires, she and others believe, were connected to maintenance issues. While some of the summer-fall fires were lightning-based, others were electrical in nature. Now into the winter months, the fires have often been wood stove or furnace-related, she said. Because of the poor economy, she believes people are using more alternative fuel sources, but they don’t have the money to ensure furnaces are maintained and chimneys are cleaned.
Cox said the state and weatherization organizations have focused on the affordability of fuel, but should, in the future, include the need to ensure that income-eligible families have clean furnaces and chimneys and properly installed wood stoves.
“We react when these incidents happen, but we’d like to be more on the proactive side where maybe we could bring down the total number of house fires,” Cox said. She has advocated to a couple of state legislators in the Bangor area that a working group should be organized to look at what can be done differently to help Maine families. It could save homes, she said.
Those wishing to donate to the Pine Tree Chapter can call 941-2903 or donations may be made online at www.pinetree.redcross.org.