One day last winter, as Gail Bacarella was cooking brunch, her 11-year-old son told her the windows in their Nikiski home were “making a weird noise.”
Figuring it was the wind, Bacarella went to the window, but when she looked out she didn’t see anything moving. There was no wind.
As the 48-year-old mother of two boys opened a door to the back half of the modular home in which the family lived, a 20-foot long tongue of fire raced across the ceiling, singeing her hair and slightly burning her face.
Bacarella instinctively went to brush the flame from her face, but in doing so, knocked off her glasses.
She yelled for her son to call 911, and she and the boy headed for the front door with their three dogs at close quarters.
All made it out safety.
That evening, along with several Nikiski neighbors, the American Red Cross responded to help in any way it could.
The Red Cross provided food and clothing, bedding and linens, and replacement eye glasses for Bacarella and her older son, whose glasses also were lost in the fire.
“Annette’s been so cool ... her knowledge of where to go to find stuff,” said Bacarella of Annette Hakkinen, director of the Kenai Peninsula District of American Red Cross of Alaska.
The Bacarella house fire is hardly the only incident to which the Red Cross has responded on the Kenai Peninsula. They’ve been there for flooding at Kenai Keys, recent wild fires in Kasilof and ash fall in Anchor Point from Augustine Volcano.
Nationwide, the agency’s response numbers are on the rise, as well, most notably following last year’s devastating Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Now, without a significant increase in donations, Red Cross of Alaska is facing a fiscal year with an estimated $150,000 to $200,000 deficit, according to an information release from the state’s headquarters in Anchorage.
Chief Executive Officer Joe Mathis said, “We won’t be building because there’s nothing to build with.
“We’re sitting with one month’s cash on hand. We can’t grow without healthy reserves,” he said.
When asked what implications that has for the Kenai Peninsula, Hakkinen said, “There’s always the possibility of closing this office, but we’re not there yet.
“We were over $8,000 in the hole last year,” she said.
Mathis said it is not in his budget plan to close the Kenai office.
“We don’t want to leave the 70,000 people on the Kenai (Peninsula) unserved,” he said.
Hakkinen attributes much of the $8,000 shortfall to the many structure fires on the Kenai Peninsula that displaced people who needed help with temporary shelter.
The Kenai Red Cross also set up a community shelter at Tustumena Elementary School during wild fires in Kasilof last month.
“No one ended up spending the night, but we had 10 volunteers there (for one week),” Hakkinen said.
The Red Cross paid for training the volunteers and had the expense of transporting supplies and equipment to the shelter in case it was needed.
“Each district is supposed to hold up its own (operating) costs,” Hakkinen said.
She said the Kenai district has not been forced to deny help to anyone because of the financial situation.
“As long as our doors are open, that won’t happen,” she said. “We never refuse services to anyone.”
In recent years, when the Kenai River overflowed its banks and flooded the Kenai Keys neighborhood on the outskirts of Sterling, the Red Cross dispatched its emergency response vehicle, which not only brought hot coffee, cocoa and doughnuts to people cleaning up their homes, but also cleanup kits complete with floor mops.
One of the only nonprofit agencies in the country that has a congressional charter, the Red Cross has an unfunded mandate to provide assistance during emergencies, according to Alaska communications director Kelly Hurd.
When a member of military service needs an emergency leave of absence, the military requires verification of the emergency from the Red Cross and only the Red Cross, according to Hurd.
Besides the verification, the Red Cross can also assist the military service member with travel costs, she said.
Since the current U.S. involvement in Iraq began, Hurd said the Red Cross has handled 4,200 emergency communications messages for Alaskans alone.
Those messages can range from notifying the soldier of the death of a grandparent to the birth of a baby.
The Red Cross is taking steps to avoid its funding shortfall, and on the Kenai Peninsula, people can help by signing up for the 15th Annual Red Cross Golf Tournament on July 8 at Birch Ridge Golf Course in Soldotna, according to Hakkinen.
The $75 entry fee includes greens fees for 18 holes, a continental breakfast, a deli lunch and evening barbecue, as well as awards and prizes. The fundraiser will also include two auctions.
Mathis said fundraisers such as the golf tournament serve to raise people’s awareness of the Red Cross, but the most effective way to raise money is direct solicitations of large donors, such as big corporations.
Hurd said she is currently focusing on a major donor campaign.
She said major, national disasters such as the Gulf Coast hurricanes “tug at the heart strings” and small, single-family house fires tend to go unnoticed, as far as prompting people to contribute to the Red Cross.
If a major natural disaster such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption were to hit the Kenai Peninsula, the national American Red Cross would pull resources together to assist, according to Hurd.
In smaller incidents, it’s up to local offices to respond.
“A long series of small incidents would hurt us,” Mathis said.
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