A soldier from the California Army National Guard conducts a search and debris clearing operation in the town of Paradise.

© California National Guard

A soldier from the California Army National Guard conducts a search and debris clearing operation in the town of Paradise, which has been devastated by the most deadly wildfires in the state’s history.

Calif. REALTORS® Plead: ‘We’re in Crisis and Need Help’

November 21, 2018

There was a hint of smoke in the air on the morning of Nov. 8 in Paradise, Calif. Aubrey Pruis, in his first year as an association executive at the Paradise Association of REALTORS®, was at the office for a meeting with his colleagues when they spotted ember and ash falling from the sky onto the parking lot. They instantly knew this wouldn’t be an ordinary day.

At the time, flames from a wildfire raging nearby hadn’t yet reached Paradise. But out of an abundance of caution, Pruis left the office with laptops, backup hard drives, and insurance papers in hand and went to his home a mile and a half away. By then—only hours later—half the town was engulfed in flames. It was 10 a.m., but it looked like nighttime under a sky darkened by thick smoke. “Flames were roaring behind me,” Pruis says. “The condos and trees behind my home were all on fire. My neighbor and I were suddenly running to our car to flee for our lives.”

Traffic was at a standstill as other residents rushed to evacuate. “People were panicking and creating traffic gridlock,” Pruis says. “Embers were flying, trees exploding, and flames were all around the cars. We were stuck in the car as we crept through town, trying to evacuate.”

An inferno of fire was on both sides of the road. As the heat became more intense, Pruis scooted toward the middle of his car, away from the doors, as he drove. “This was the most terrifying experience of my life,” Pruis says. “I was about to burn to death in my car with my dog. There seemed to be no safe way out.”

Thousands of California residents faced the same harrowing dilemma, forced to flee their homes as two enormous wildfires, known as the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire, spread from the northern and southern regions of the state. As of Wednesday morning, 84 people have been killed, making it the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history. About 800 remain missing, including several REALTORS® who have not been accounted for in Paradise. The California Association of REALTORS® says about 175 of its members statewide have lost either their homes or their brokerages. “We are in a crisis and need your help,” an Oroville Association of REALTORS® executive who lost her home pleaded in an email to CAR.

‘Our Community Is Homeless’

The fires have left more than 16,500 structures uninhabitable, including the Paradise Association of REALTORS® building. “There are a lot of agents who are displaced and scattered throughout the towns, waiting for next steps,” Pruis says. Many people currently are living in cars and parking lots because no temporary shelter is available, Pruis says. “Our community is homeless.”

The need for charitable donations to help wildfire victims is urgent, CAR leaders say. “Thousands of people have been displaced and are in need of a place to live, including many in the REALTOR® community,” CAR President Jared Martin wrote in an email to members. “Several members have written us, telling how they barely escaped with their lives. … With these disasters becoming the norm, CAR is depleting its relief fund, and we’ve barely begun receiving grant requests from victims of the recent fires.”

More than 7,500 fires have burned throughout California this year alone, making it the most destructive wildfires season on record. The fires, not including the most recent ones, have caused nearly $3 billion in damages.

The National Association of REALTORS®, through its REALTORS® Relief Foundation, has teamed up with the California Association of REALTORS® Disaster Relief Fund and has pledged $1 million to victims of both the Camp and Woolsey fires. One hundred percent of all contributions, which are tax deductible, go directly to the victims.

Make a donation to the REALTORS® Relief Foundation.

REALTORS® are working to find temporary shelter for those in need, including offering space in local association buildings and brokerages to house displaced victims. Members who work in neighboring areas that were unharmed in the wildfires report escalating home prices as victims rush to snatch up available inventory.

Pruis, who grew up in Paradise, says once-familiar areas now are leveled and unidentifiable. There’s barely anything left, except a standing charred tree here and there, he says. A sign from a vigil earlier this week reads: “We will rise from the ashes.”

“Just the magnitude of destruction—the entire town was wiped out,” Pruis says. “There are so few structures that are left, and then knowing there were many people who did not make it out alive. The devastation is incredible. Paradise has a long road ahead, but there is also opportunity. We will rebuild.”

REALTOR® Magazine writer Sam Silverstein contributed to this report.