An unexpected increase in the number of homeless families in Prince William County has prompted officials with the county's American Red Cross to make an urgent appeal for money.

The chapter's disaster relief fund was depleted last month, prompting the humanitarian organization to divert money from its educational programs to help homeless families.

"We're using dollars allocated for other programs," said David Goetz, spokesman for the chapter. "This is a serious problem . . . . It is the first time this chapter is making an appeal."

According to Goetz, 62 families left homeless by fire were helped in finding shelter or were provided with food or clothing in the past six months. The average size of the families was five persons.

"This has been a terrible year for fires," said LaDonna Tatum, director of emergency services for the chapter. "We have depleted our reserves, and half the {fiscal} year remains."

So far, the organization has provided disaster relief to 6,124 people involved in about 120 incidents, Tatum said. Sixty-two of them were fire-related, while others involved flooding and gas leaks.

In the first six months of the previous fiscal year, the chapter provided relief to 32 families and 18 individuals made homeless by various factors, Goetz noted.

In addition to disaster relief, the chapter has provided temporary shelter for 118 families who could not afford housing in the past six months.

"People from as far away as Denver, Colorado, were coming in with Prince William job ads," Tatum said. "Many realize once they get here that there is no low-income housing in the county."

"The worst of the fire season is still ahead, with many fires occurring when older heater systems are overloaded," said Gerry Tron, the chapter's manager.

Checks should be made out to the American Red Cross for the Disaster Relief Fund and sent to American Red Cross, Prince William Chapter, 9317 West St., Manassas, Va. 22110.