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Those Red Cross debit cards people received after losing their homes in the Valley fire?

They’d better use them now, because the money could disappear in 60 days.

Complaints are emerging from people who received calls from Red Cross workers urging them to spend the money before it goes away, raising concerns that the tactic makes it less likely the millions in donations made to the disaster relief powerhouse will be used by people in need.

“The American public isn’t giving the donation thinking if you don’t use it in the next few days it will be taken away from you,” said Hidden Valley Lake resident Teresa Welter, whose 22-year-old sons lost their shared apartment on Barnes Street to the fire. “It’s very misleading.”

Red Cross officials confirmed that the cards have a 60-day expiration date because they are designed to be an emergency flow of cash — starting at $125 — for people’s immediate needs in the wake of disasters.

Red Cross spokeswoman Cynthia Shaw said that staff and volunteers were asked to explain that timeline to people when they handed out the cards, and she had not yet heard about people being taken by surprise by the deadline.

“We don’t want money to sit in our bank account. That’s not the purpose of the cards,” Shaw said. “The money is for immediate assistance.”

The national disaster response organization gave out about 1,500 debit cards for people who lost homes and suffered other losses in the Valley fire that burned 76,067 acres in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties and the Butte fire that burned more than 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties in the Sierra Foothills, Shaw said.

The Red Cross received a combined total of $2.1 million in donations for those two fires as of Oct. 5, the most recent tally available, she said.

The organization does not provide a separate accounting for the two fires, which occurred more than 150 miles apart, because it is internally considered a single response effort for the Red Cross, Shaw said.

Shaw urged people to call the Red Cross with any questions.

“If they run into problems (with the cards), we want to discuss that,” Shaw said. “We want to ensure that people are using the funds because we do have donors who have given us the money and expect that it will be used.”

Welter’s home survived the fire, and her sons Andrew and Anthony Welter are living with her for now until they decide what to do next. Andrew Welter is a South Lake Tahoe firefighter who was battling the Sept. 9 Butte fire when he was called back to Lake County after the Valley fire ignited three days later on the northern slope of Cobb Mountain.

His mother said that Andrew Welter was sent to Middletown and watched as his Barnes Road apartment building burned to the ground, yet he continued working for days on end, as did many other firefighters.

Welter first posted her concerns on a Facebook group discussion board for people seeking donations and others who have things to give. Her comments spurred a lively debate.

Others on the thread reported receiving similar phone calls from the Red Cross.

Welter said that one of her sons received a call on Tuesday stating that he had to spend the money within the next few days — only three weeks after he received the card on Oct. 2. The card was then rejected at an ATM and at a store, Welter said.

“What I don’t like about this is … where does this money go back to? Where does this money go?” Welter said.

The money goes back to the Red Cross, Shaw said.

Shaw said that if a person’s Red Cross debit card isn’t working, that could be a technical problem like a damaged magnetic strip, which can be resolved by calling a Red Cross case worker.

“It’s not, ‘We give you the card and we’re done,’ ” Shaw said. “Until they’re well on the road of recovery, we want to maintain that relationship.”

Anyone experiencing trouble using the Red Cross-issued debit cards or who wishes to request an extension to access the money can call the Red Cross case work hotline at 855-224-2490.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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