Santa Rosa firefighters are calling for the public's help in their annual campaign to put children's toys under the Christmas tree.

"We are in desperate need," firefighter Tony Niel said while sorting donated toys Tuesday in the Hall of Flowers building at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Santa Rosa Firefighters Local 1401, which has conducted the Toys for Kids program for nearly 30 years, is up against a bad economy this season, said Niel, the program organizer.

More than 5,000 students from needy families in the Santa Rosa area have requested gifts through their schools, and the program so far has collected about 1,000 toys.

Additional requests are coming in, Niel said.

Cash donations are also sought to buy gifts -- at a discount from local stores -- that match the students' requests, and Niel said the campaign is running far below its $20,000 goal.

"It's the lowest we've been in 10 years," Niel said. "It's tough."

Firefighters are at a booth in the Santa Rosa Plaza from noon to 8 p.m. through Dec. 22, accepting unwrapped gifts and cash donations. Checks should be made out to SR Fire Local 1401.

Collection barrels are in front of every Santa Rosa and Rincon Valley fire station.

All firefighters engaged in the Toys for Kids campaign are volunteering their time at no cost to the city, Niel said.

Gifts are picked up by school teachers who deliver them to the children's parents.

"It's not about us," Niel said, referring to firefighters. "It looks like the parents have put the gifts under the tree."

Last year the campaign distributed toys for more than 11,000 children.

"It was a huge year," Niel said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or