Firefighters across Southern California have regained control of more than half the wildfires that burned out of control and unchecked since Sunday, forcing evacuation orders for nearly 1 million people and causing an estimated $1 billion in property damage in San Diego County alone. Feeding off of bone-dry brush and spurred on by fierce Santa Ana winds, walls of fire have reduced approximately 400,000 acres of land between Malibu and the Mexican border to piles of ash and cinders. The fires are responsible for six confirmed deaths to date and countless injuries.
At press time, the effect on multifamily operators was difficult to ascertain, as preliminary reports were still coming in amidst the devastation and mass evacuations. "I think I speak for all Southern California apartment executives in saying that we are still in the eye of the storm, so the damage levels are bound to increase," Robert Pinnegar, executive director of the San Diego County Apartment Association, told MFE via email. "But many of our members are evacuating their properties."
Southern California multifamily property owners and managers not in immediate danger from the conflagrations have been quick to respond. SDCAA, for one, is maintaining an up-to-date list of local vacancies obtained from member and non-member companies alike. The organization is using the data to alert evacuees to options for immediately available rental housing. The association Web site also is offering downloads on emergency preparedness, steps for evacuating multifamily properties, and how to deal with ash and fire damage cleanup.
"It is still pretty smoky here in the city, and most of our members have evacuated," says SDCAA director of publications Olivia Galvez, who, along with controller Bill Fredericks, was manning the association office alone?all other staff, including Pinnegar, were dealing with evacuations from their homes and properties. "But for those who remain, we want to stress that you don't want to simply abandon your property. Make sure all of your tenants leave. If anyone stays behind, document it. Post signs on evacuation routes and provide information to your residents."
On Wednesday, President George W. Bush declared seven Southern California counties major disaster areas, and visited locations throughout the state on Thursday to witness the devastation firsthand. "We clearly are still in the early stages of information gathering and don't have answers as to how badly members have been affected or any preliminary gauge on the level of damage yet," said California Apartment Association director of communications John Galbraith. "The following CAA network associations are currently under severe fire alerts: CAA Los Angeles, Apartment Association of the Greater Inland Empire, South Coast Apartment Association and the San Diego County Apartment Association."
In a scene eerily reminiscent of the 2002 Katrina disaster, evacuees in San Diego County filled Qualcomm Stadium. The San Diego Chargers NFL team plans to play this Sunday's home game against the Houston Texans in Phoenix. SDCAA officials hope some of those evacuees can leave the stadium parking lot for vacant rental units, and continue to urge their members to list property-by-property, unit-by-unit availability on the association's Web site.
By late Wednesday, Santa Ana winds started dying down and backup firefighting resources and manpower began to arrive from neighboring states. Firefighters seemed hopeful that the worst was over, a sentiment shared by multifamily executives across Southern California.
"The next stage will be for cleanup and rebuilding," said Pinnegar, who recalled similar wildfires that wreaked havoc in the region only four years ago. "If the 2003 firestorm taught us anything, we know that those who have properties which have been damaged will have a challenge in that many of their residents simply don't have renter's insurance."
Galvez said that, despite the lessons learned during the 2003 fires, many multifamily operators calling her office still had no disaster recovery plans in place and were, understandably, in a state of panic. Though she pointed those individuals toward available resources, she nonetheless did not mince words when it came to emergency preparedness. "People don't tend to keep these things in mind, even though this is the second time it has happened in this decade. We need to wise up."
Editor's note: Region-by-region information on multifamily evacuation processes, emergency response, and disaster recovery strategy is available on the California Apartment Association's Web site.