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'Heating season' brings fire risk

December 15, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

WASHINGTON COUNTY - When temperatures begin to drop, Cindy Blackstock prepares a group of American Red Cross volunteers for "the heating season."

What Blackstock can't prepare them for is the heartache.

Blackstock, the director of disaster services for the Washington County Chapter of the American Red Cross, said that every year, volunteers find shelter for at least one family left homeless from a fire caused by heating. Unfortunately, she said, the heating season marked by fires almost always coincides with the holiday season.

"At Christmastime, it doubles the devastation for families," Blackstock said. "Even though we do meet emergency needs, it's difficult to be reassuring when you've lost your home and the holiday spirit."

In the past week, two Hagerstown fires have left a family of five and a family of eight homeless.

The American Red Cross has put both families in hotels and has helped them with meals and clothing vouchers.

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Jose Duran has been staying at a hotel since a fire Saturday caused by an electric heater destroyed his South Locust Street home.

Duran, a father of three, thought his son had fallen when he heard a crash Saturday night. The 34-year-old man walked through a dark hallway to investigate and noticed something strange about his daughter's bedroom, the door to which was closed.

"I see under the door - I see fire. Then I try to see what happened in the room. I push it with my leg and my feet ... When I opened the door, the fire came over me," he said.

Duran, a native of Mexico, said he called to his wife and children to get out of the house. The home, in which he has lived for four years, was destroyed.

Duran said his children, ages 10, 8 and 6, have stayed with family in Virginia since the fire. He's concerned about them missing school and now has to worry about them missing Christmas, too.

He said he plans to go Christmas shopping soon.

Blackstock said volunteers are affected when they see a family left in dire straits. On Christmas Eve 2000, there were two fires in Washington County that left families homeless, Hagerstown Fire Department Capt. Justin Mayhue said.

She said counseling is available for any volunteer who needs help dealing with an experience on the job.

"The Red Cross can't keep moving forward if the Red Cross isn't healthy," she said. "We offer that as a way of keeping everyone's mind in the proper setting."

Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Gary Hawbaker said some firefighters sought counseling when three children were killed in a South Potomac Street fire about 20 years ago.

Firefighters are accustomed to dealing with such losses, but losses around the holidays seem to make more of an impact, he said.

"We get affected no matter what time of the year," Mayhue said. "A fire that displaces a family in March is just as devastating as when a family loses their home at Christmas."

Blackstock said the local chapter is not set up to coordinate gift drives for families affected by recent fires, but she said anyone who wants to coordinate a drive through the Red Cross may call her at 301-739-0717, ext. 205.

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