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Volunteerism spreads like wildfire

As soon as news of the blazes broke, strangers stepped forward to offer all kinds of help.

November 18, 2008|Kate Linthicum | Linthicum is a Times staff writer.

Lisa Bialac-Jehle was just a few minutes from sleep Friday night when her phone rang.

It was the American Red Cross, and they were calling about a fire.

The caller told Bialac-Jehle, 52, a member of the organization's disaster action team, that she was needed immediately at Sylmar High School to help victims who had fled there. So she threw on some clothes, hopped in the car and sped up the 405.

The Topanga Canyon resident, whose own neighborhood has been threatened by fires in the past, first felt relief. "It wasn't us this time," she remembers thinking.

But as she approached the blazing hills, she began to realize that flames are undiscerning. But for luck, the volunteers aren't any different from the victims. "We are them," she said. "And they are us."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, November 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Fire relief: An article in Tuesday's California section about aid for wildfire victims said the Red Cross had given $65 million to the California relief effort. The Red Cross has raised $65 million for its National Disaster Relief Fund and has funneled between $750,000 and $2 million into California communities affected by the wildfires.

Bialac-Jehle has been working nearly around the clock to tend to the 300 displaced people living on cots at Sylmar High. She is one of hundreds of volunteers who stepped forward this weekend to help those displaced by three wildfires that have scorched thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes throughout Southern California. The volunteers mobilized through traditional and unusual means: telephone calls from the Red Cross and Salvation Army, and postings on Internet sites such as President-elect Barack Obama used his website to urge supporters to donate to the Salvation Army or the Red Cross.

The Red Cross has funneled $65 million from its National Relief Fund to help fire survivors in California, according to spokeswoman Carmela Burke. Burke could not say how much money the organization raised in Los Angeles but said it expected major donations from local businesses and organizations, including the Los Angeles Lakers, in the coming days.

Much of the volunteerism has been more grass-roots. Craigslist launched a "fire forum" on which posters have offered victims free clothes, spare bedrooms and moral support. Others have volunteered to board displaced animals -- including horses, chinchillas and snakes.

Greg Keefe, 53, a carpenter who lives in Venice, offered his services on Craigslist. Once firefighters finish battling the Freeway Complex fire, he plans to set up a tent city in the charred region along the border of Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties and help out however he can. "We'll clean up the houses and clean up the yards," said Keefe, who volunteered in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Paul Prunty, 50, of Cypress has his own philosophy about volunteering: "You find a niche and you fill it," he said.

On Sunday, Prunty rushed to Anaheim Hills after he saw television footage of the destruction the fire there had caused to an apartment complex.

When he arrived at the Cascades apartments, residents were "mobbing" police and fire officials for information on access to their homes. To help defuse the situation, Prunty retrieved a piece of scrap lumber from his minivan and started a bulletin board of the addresses of the homes that had been cleared.

"I'm not extraordinary in any way. I'm not super-heroic," he said. "But I know that it's not up to anybody else to make the world a better place; it's up to me."

Information on volunteering: or

Donations are being taken by the Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles (, the Salvation Army (, and the Burn Institute-Inland Empire at (909) 519-1063.

A fund has been established for two Montecito burn victims at Santa Barbara Bank and Trust, 1483 E. Valley Road, Montecito, CA 93108. Donations should be directed to the Lance and Carla Burn Fund.



Times staff writer Tony Barboza contributed to this report.

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