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Fire crew staff prepare to cut a burned area at Santiam County Park in March. A grass fire burned almost 200 acres and threatened dozens of homes. The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at the high school in Lyons. 

March is an unusual time for grass fires in Linn County, but when the nearly 200-acre Santiam Park Fire broke out near Lyons, American Red Cross volunteers quickly set up a temporary shelter at the high school for anyone whose home was threatened.

Although appreciative of the Red Cross response, Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker said he was disappointed that the volunteers came from Marion County and not Linn County.

“I have served on the Red Cross regional board of directors for two years,” he said. “Red Cross volunteers come to our county two to three times per month to deliver emergency services, usually to help families who have had a home fire, to install hundreds of fire alarms or collect blood that eventually comes back to our local hospitals.”

Tucker said Red Cross services “are an integral part of what we need in terms of support to help make Linn County what it is.”

When he writes thank-you cards to Red Cross volunteers, he often notices they're for people in Benton or Marion counties.

“We need more local volunteers,” Tucker said. “We need more people to hear about and learn about our local problems.”

Tucker recalled that during the 1996 flood, the Red Cross staged a trailer filled with food, cots, blankets and pillows at Lacomb Elementary School.

“Many of us were camped there for several days,” he said. “Most people never think about the Red Cross until the trailer shows up. But, with one phone call, we can get things moving. It’s amazing to be a part of that, but we couldn’t do any of it without volunteers.”

Tucker said that due to the acute shortage of blood this summer, he's calling every blood-drive manager in Linn and Benton counties, encouraging them to increase their donations by four or five units.

Nick Widmer, the new disaster program manager for the Eugene-based Red Cross Cascades Region, said the March fire highlights why volunteers are needed for numerous Red Cross programs, from assisting at disasters to giving blood regularly.

Widmer, 26, knows about the values of the Red Cross, because his aunt was an international volunteer for many years.

The Cascades Region includes Linn, Benton, Lane and Douglas counties.

“My job is to help prepare communities for natural disasters, fires, any large-scale natural disasters,” he said.

Widmer was drawn to “the interconnectivity of it. It’s a passion, my mission of service. I have always felt drawn to it.”

Widmer grew up in Canby and earned a degree in public health from Oregon State University, where he played on the Beaver lacrosse team.

Widmer said a key Red Cross program in the mid-valley is providing free smoke alarms for area homeowners.

The Red Cross responds to a home fire every eight minutes nationally. This spring, Red Cross staff and volunteers installed 100,000 free smoke alarms in homes in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Mid-valley residents can learn more about free smoke alarms by calling 541-749-4144, visiting www.redcross.org/GetAnAlarm or emailing preparedness@redcross.org.

The alarms come with 10-year lithium batteries that are built into the unit.

Local volunteer responders are also needed to assist families who have experienced home fires, Widmer said. Volunteers need to be trained so they're ready to render aid.

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The national goal is to reduce the number of persons killed or injured in home fires by 25% by 2020.

“We also really need blood donors, especially in the summer,” Widmer said.

Cascades Region executive director Carisa Hettich said the need for blood grows in the summer as families travel more and the potential for donors decreases, as high schools and colleges let out.

“When classes are in, we can get 100 donors at one event,” she said. “When school is out, we have to have three events with 30 donors each to make that.”

Hettich added that people have to remember that blood has a relatively short shelf life.

“Blood is so critical to saving lives,” she said. “I would really hate to think someone died because there was a lack of available blood.”

Hettich also pointed out that even if a person isn’t able to give blood, they can volunteer to assist at a blood drive.

Other Red Cross emergency response programs in need of volunteers include:

• Prepare Outloud: An onsite drill that trains volunteers in the following areas: the science and history of the Cascadia Subduction Zone; human behavior in disasters; what to expect during a Cascadia earthquake; locating loved ones following a disaster; and how much food, water and other supplies are necessary for care. The next area Prepare Outloud training will be held Oct. 25 at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.

• Pillowcase Project: Geared toward youth ages 8 to 11, the Pillowcase Project increases awareness and understanding of natural disasters, and also teaches safety, emotional coping skills and personal preparedness. Students learn to stay safe and how to create emergency supply kits by packing essential items in a pillowcase that can be moved during a natural disaster.

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Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.