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Fire Leaves Families in Limbo

Part one of a three part series.

Instead of turning off the television and going to sleep, Marcus Hernandez and his wife decided to catch a little more of Jay Leno and "The Tonight Show," a move that may have saved their lives.

The Hernandez heard a crackle in the attic, and when they investigated, they discovered an electrical fire burning.

"When we saw the fire, I pulled the kids out. When I pulled down the stair, I could see it,” Hernandez said. “I'm a little bit thankful we were watching that segment [of "The Tonight Show"]."

That night, they woke their neighbors, the Mokhsijerjians, across the street in the Springfield Estates community, who took the couple and their two children in for the evening until the Red Cross put them up in a hotel for the next few nights. The Red Cross provides a short-term safety net to help families affected by disaster until insurance money comes in or they can find family or friends to stay with.

Nicholas Peake, director of government relations for the Washington metro area Red Cross, works out of the Alexandria office.

"We help with the immediate emergency needs for the family," he said.

Immediate needs include up to three nights in a nearby hotel or motel, plus food and clothing if needed. Usually by then, some assistance from insurance kicks in, if the displaced family had homeowners or renters insurance.

If not, families my be dependent on local charitable organizations.

"The typical homeowners policy will take care of people better than the Red Cross," Peake said.

ACCORDING to its Web site, the American Red Cross responds immediately to more than 60,000 disasters. Disasters include hurricanes, floods, blizzards, tornadoes, hazardous materials spills, transportation accidents, explosives, and other man-made disasters every year. In this area, the Red Cross has the National Capital Area Chapter, covering Fairfax County, Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County. There are also Red Cross chapters in Alexandria, Arlington and Loudoun counties.

The National Capital Area Chapter (NCAC) handled 1,451 emergencies last year, including 270 local emergency incidents and 325 families evacuated after local disasters. They handled Hernandez's situation as well as two other house fires in Springfield and Burke over the last two weeks.

On the morning of Monday, June 2, a fire broke out in an apartment in West Springfield. After the flames were put out, the Red Cross was called in to help.

"We assisted a family of five with three nights in a hotel, laundry, supplies and meals. We are also providing them with follow-up referral services," said Courtney Prebich, NCAC spokesperson.

Another fire the following day in Burke displaced four adults and one child after the malfunction in an exterior light fixture in the front of the house, according to the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. That fire was at night and neighbors let them stay for the night until the Red Cross found them a place the next day.

"The night of the fire, they stayed with neighbors. If they didn't have a place to go, the Red Cross would provide them with a place. The Red Cross has arrangements with hotels all over the area," Prebich said.

While the families are temporarily housed in hotels, the Red Cross turns to churches and community groups to help them find more permanent stays while their house is being repaired.

"We encourage the family to contact other family or friends," said Peake.

The three days in a hotel is flexible as well, according to Peake.

"It depends on the financial strength of the Red Cross chapter involved," he said.

"It's all done on a case by case basis," she said.

Community groups such as the Ecumenical Community Help Organization (ECHO) step in with monetary assistance when possible but their resources are limited. Like the Red Cross they rely entirely on donations.

"We have helped people in the past, they can come here and get emergency clothing and food," said ECHO volunteer Dani Schwalb.

A BLUE TARP covered the hole in the Hernandez family roof. The fire officials on the scene estimated the work needed to be done.

"The fire inspector said it started with the fan. They said it would take about 90 days," Hernandez said.

The damage caused by the Hernandez fire was estimated at $75,000. The other two fires were estimated at $40,000 and $50,000.