When the first fire call went out shortly before 11 a.m. on Friday in Fulton, Ill., it would have been tough to predict how the rest of the day would play out. What started as 911 calls from passersby who saw smoke turned into an all-afternoon affair requiring the presence of more than 20 area fire departments.

As the 125-year-old three-story apartment building in downtown Fulton burned, firefighters from Fulton, Clinton and all over Western Illinois came in droves, pouring countless gallons of water on the towering inferno. Clinton’s presence was valuable thanks to a new ladder truck used to douse from above. Fulton’s new water tower came into play, allowing tanker trucks to fill and refill at a church parking lot a few blocks away.

Whenever such mutual aid is in play — and stop again to realize the magnitude of more than 20 departments being involved, especially since many of those people are volunteers — the towns those departments come from are left less secure, with their neighbors at the ready should they be called into service as well.

We seek not to diminish the negativity of the destruction brought by this fire, but we all would be remiss if we ignored the triumph of the human spirit on display. Not just from firefighters, of course, but from people who help with the Red Cross, or the man driving by who saw smoke and moments later was inside pounding on doors, breaking them down to lead people to safety, completely ignoring the health ramifications on his surgically repaired heart.

When people see such a tremendous fire, the first reaction of many is awe at the raw power of the natural element. Others, however, see a building engulfed in flames and the first thought they think is “How can I help?” It is those people we celebrate, those who would put others above themself.

That spirit does not die with the flames of one particular fire. There is within the community a tenable sentiment of finding ways to help those who need it now. There are specific families in need, to be sure, and efforts to help them are commendable. A Clinton family lost its home to a fire just days before the Fulton blaze, and already the community has rallied to support those people.

Others have come to the aid of the Red Cross, an ironic twist, since the Red Cross is known for providing aid in the first place. So good is the local chapter at its mission — and so great has been the need for assistance — that the Gateway Area Chapter’s disaster response budget has been obliterated. The budget was $15,000. The overrun alone has now exceeded $60,000, more than four times the actual budget! No one could have predicted this predicament, but now we must find a way out.

Fulton resident, businesswoman and political activist Barb Suehl, whose brother’s home was the Clinton residence burned last week, is spearheading a Red Cross benefit to take place at Gil’s Ballroom in Clinton. Details are still being formulated, but this much is known: The event is from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Gil’s Ballroom, featuring food, music and other entertainment, and the goal is to raise $20,000.

In a year when so much has been sent from the Gateway area in terms of material goods, cash, people and other support to places like New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after a devastating hurricane season, and in a year where groups like the United Way have met yet another fund-raising goal, a year where Habitat for Humanity is getting off the ground, the American Cancer Society Relay for Life and Alzheimer’s Memory Walk have collected significant pledges and students have organized wildly successful food drives, it is a challenge to raise even more money for a worthy cause.

But, fires being what they are, the money is needed. Heaven help us all if the Red Cross simply has to stop offering housing assistance to people displaced by a fire. When horrible tragedies like the recent fire or the Brentwood Bluffs blaze occur, the Red Cross is there, lending a hand where it’s needed most. The least the rest of us can do is chip in a few dollars to make sure that hand will always be extended.

Again, this is about the human spirit and a call to help those we can afford to help. We do it because we hope those people would consider us were we the ones in need. That’s how we’re able to survive as a species. In the end, it isn’t about money — remember those volunteers fighting the fire with every bit the intensity of those who collect a paycheck for the same work — it’s about sincere concern for the common good.

As long as that sentiment prevails, we’ll be able to make it to tomorrow.

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