Calif. Wildfires: ‘It Pushed Me Over the Edge’

December 15, 2017

Matt Capritto’s 87-year-old father, Tony, lost his home in Ventura, Calif., to the wildfires that are ravaging the southern half of the state, and now he no longer has a place to play his piano every afternoon. As difficult an experience as that was, Capritto, president-elect of the Ventura County Coastal Association of REALTORS®, didn’t feel the magnitude of the situation until he took his father to the post office to change his mailing address. “It just pushed me right over the edge,” Capritto says. “You can be numb to the process of all the things there are to do. Being in that post office, there were people who didn’t know if their homes were saved.”

As six major wildfires continue to rage from San Diego to Los Angeles, real estate professionals in affected areas are trying to manage saving their own homes while helping clients who have evacuated danger zones and figuring out how the disaster will affect already historically low inventory in the state. More than 1,000 structures have been destroyed since the fires began Dec. 4, according to reports, and nearly 100,000 more are in harm’s way. The blazes together cover an area larger than New York and Boston combined. In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties outside of L.A., the Thomas fire—the fourth largest in California history—has burned 242,500 acres and is 30 percent contained, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Santa Paula, Calif., Kay Wilson-Bolton, ABR, CRS, a sales associate with Century 21 Troop Real Estate, has been sleeping in her real estate office since Dec. 5. It’s only a mile from her house, but she can’t go home because her neighborhood was forced to evacuate. Even being displaced herself, Wilson-Bolton, one of REALTOR® Magazine’s 2017 Good Neighbors, has continued to focus on helping those around her. As a volunteer for her local fire department, she has been visiting shelters and evacuation centers—clad in her fire chaplain jacket—to provide a sense of calm and comfort to victims of the blazes. “We can’t let blips become tragedies,” she says. “In every corner of everybody’s life, there’s a little fire right now, whether you can’t get to work, [don’t have sufficient] food supply, or the air quality.”

Wilson-Bolton says at least 13 homes that were destroyed in her community belonged to real estate colleagues. Her own home has not been damaged, but conditions remain unsafe for her to return. Many of her clients’ transactions are in chaos due to the wildfires. She says local lenders have halted loan approvals, insurance companies aren’t writing new policies, and transactions for homes in escrow are being delayed—assuming the properties are still in good condition. “It’s been a terrible experience,” Wilson-Bolton says. “But life goes on, and you have to equip yourself and be a good neighbor. Don’t say, ‘Here’s what you should do.’ Turn it into, ‘How can I help you?’”

The city of Ventura is offering a local assistance center for evacuees to receive pertinent information from insurance companies, vendors, and other agencies, Wilson-Bolton says. But many donation centers have received such an overwhelming outpouring of goods that they are no longer accepting donations. So Karen Campbell, SFR, AHWD, one of Wilson-Bolton’s colleagues at Century 21 Troop Real Estate, stepped up to begin coordinating housing relief efforts for victims. Campbell started searching for vacant units, such as vacation rentals and RVs, where victims could stay. Several of her friends and clients offered individual rooms, properties, and even hotel accommodations for displaced residents. “When there’s a need and people have lost their homes, we need to get them back to normal as soon as possible,” Campbell says. “If you need to get the word out, we [as agents] will get the word out.”

Campbell recently met with escrow officers, other REALTORS®, and affiliates to organize relief efforts and create an action plan for next steps. Although Campbell couldn’t say how many volunteers had joined her efforts, “everyone’s volunteering” and she’s directing the help. “We’re telling [victims] to just breathe—it’s going to be OK. You’re here, even though your stuff isn’t here. It’s just stuff,” Campbell says. “Everybody gets that, but everybody replays in their mind, ‘Oh, I didn’t grab that,’ or ‘I didn’t get that picture off the wall.’ They didn’t have time to grab anything.”

The Ventura County Coastal Association of REALTORS® and the Conejo Simi Moorpark Association of REALTORS® have contributed donations to the California Association of REALTORS®’ disaster fund, Capritto says. He also says local officials are working with the associations’ databases to create an online resource for housing-related inquiries for victims, which is expected to be up and running by early next week. “Having the resources available and the county being on it is a blessing,” Capritto says. “We’re letting the walls down between brokerages and offering the support that we can as REALTORS®. It’s heartwarming.”

Meteorologists predict that the wildfires could continue to be largely uncontained for another week, fueled by low humidity and gusting winds. Some rain is expected in affected areas by Christmas. But that could cause another problem: the torched soil could create a huge risk for mudslides, CNBC reports.

Capritto says recovery from the wildfires may be a one- or two-year process, and housing remains the most pressing need for victims. “I know this for sure: There’s something we can do to make a difference in this,” Capritto says. “If I’m thankful for anything, it’s that there’s no ego here. We’re all working together for the goodness of our community.”

—Lauren Tussey, REALTOR® Magazine