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Local help headed to Auburn fire victims

By: Brandon Darnell, News Messenger Reporter
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While spending her Sunday at home Aug. 30, Lincoln Police Dispatcher Melissa Reali turned on the TV and saw the news coverage of the devastating fire in Auburn, and she was inspired to action. “I don’t know what made me get up and go to my computer, but I just really felt like I needed to help,” Reali said. Knowing that the victims of the fire who had lost their houses would need as much help as possible, Reali sent an e-mail to a few friends and family members asking for donations she could deliver to Auburn. It wasn’t long before her inbox was filling up with offers from more than just those she had sent the e-mail to. “I’ve taken a car full of stuff and a trailer full, and now it looks like I have two more trailers’ worth of stuff to take up there,” Reali said last week, scanning her inbox. The donations have covered all sorts of items. “It’s been everything – clothes, shoes, blankets, toys, cleaning supplies, a mini-fridge and even pet foods,” Reali said. Several of Reali’s coworkers at the dispatch center have also collected donation items. “We’re all suffering from pay cuts,” Reali said, “but at least we have our houses, and we can help those who lost theirs.” One of Reali’s coworkers who helped is Terri Leedy, who has been a dispatcher with the Lincoln Police Department for four years. Leedy was on duty the day of the fire, and she fielded a number of calls from residents concerned the fire was headed in their direction. “We were able to send a fire engine and a police officer to help with the evacuations,” Leedy said. “It was a good feeling to be able to help.” Leedy said that a fire like the one in Auburn is so close to home that it’s hard not to be affected in some way. “When you saw the magnitude of the fires just watching the news, it was pretty apparent that a lot of people lost their homes and needed help,” Leedy said. “We’re a half-hour away, and we just wanted to help.” Leedy said Reali and her husband, Matt, really started the effort, and others just rallied around, using e-mail to kick-start donations. Each and every fire victim has a story, and the story of RC Higgs, a CHP officer whose home was lost, is indicative of the suffering caused by the fire. According to Higgs’ commander, CHP Lt. John Arrabit, Higgs and his wife were at a wedding during the fire’s outbreak, but his daughter and granddaughter were home. “A neighbor knocked on the door and alerted them that there was a fire,” Arrabit said. “The fire was already to the fence, and she only had time to grab her daughter. By the time she was getting out, the house was already igniting. All she was able to do was grab her baby girl who was in a diaper and flee to safety.” The house, according to Arrabit, was a total loss. Higgs has spent his whole career devoted to helping others in their darkest hour, and according to Arrabit, local donations have been deeply appreciated by the officer. “It’s difficult for him to be in that position,” Arrabit said. “He’s spent his whole life helping others.” The impact of losing a home goes beyond just material items, Arrabit said. Higgs’ daughter recently returned to school to pursue nursing, and in the house was her new computer, which she needs for school. “It has an effect beyond just everyday items,” Arrabit said. “That was one of her primary tools to use in her education.” Each family that lost a house has a similar tragic story, and that’s what has driven Reali to take donated items to Auburn. On one occasion, Reali had just pulled up, and fire victims were headed in, so she let them look through her items first. “They said they were overwhelmed by the community response,” Reali said. “There’s lots of volunteers in Auburn, and they’re all helping out.” Anyone wishing to help out can send an e-mail to Melissa Reali at mreali@ci.lincoln.ca.us. “The last thing we knew, they were asking for toiletries – toothpaste, soap, bath towels, a lot of things we take for granted,” Leedy said. Though Reali and Leedy are with the police department, the call to help didn’t come from their superiors – it came directly from them. “What they’re doing doesn’t surprise me,” said Police Chief Brian Vizzusi. “We have a great group of employees, and they’re always caring for the welfare of our citizens from Lincoln and the surrounding areas.” Vizzusi said that while citizens are used to seeing police officers out on the street, the dispatchers are the unsung heroes. “I’m proud of what they’re doing,” Vizzusi said, “and I’m glad people get to hear about it.”