SoCal's biggest wildfire still rages out of control

Realtors drop everything to help their clients, communities in second week of crisis

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Inman Connect New York | January 29 - February 1, 2019

It’s been over a week now since wildfires broke out in Southern California, threatening homes and forcing thousands to evacuate their cities across the region to seek safety.

Some of the smaller-scale but still destructive outbreaks, including Bel-Air’s “Skirball” fire and San Diego’s “Lilac” fire, are over 80 percent contained. But the widespread fire that’s ripped through Ventura County since last Monday continues to evade firefighters’ attempts to control it and remained just 15 percent contained at the time of this article’s publication. Press reports compared its 230,000 acre coverage to the geographic scope of New York City and Boston combined.

The Thomas fire has destroyed nearly 800 structures and continues to threaten 18,000 more, according to the latest toll from the L.A. Times. The strong and unpredictable wind forecast has prompted mandatory evacuations for the Central Coast areas of Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito and Santa Barbara — some of which haven’t been affected by wildfires in decades, according to NPR.

Realtors in Thomas’s path are largely putting their busiest time of the year to the side to see what they can do to help their communities. With three transactions scheduled for this week, Village Properties Realtor Cathy O’Neill of Santa Barbara has instead been handing out smoke masks and “handholding” anxious clients. Her brother, an agent with another firm, was driving an elderly Montecito client a couple of hours north to meet up the coast with her daughter, who was driving south.

Having been in Santa Barbara her whole life, O’Neill said she’s learned with wildfires, “you have to be in front of it,” with the priority being to have animals and the elderly well out of harm’s way early on. From her base in Santa Barbara’s downtown with her fellow team leader, O’Neill described the smoke-filled air as “like living in sepia tone.” Her closings will be put off a few days and clients’ escrow expanded.

“We are going to make sure everybody is making decisions they want to make moving forward,” O’Neill said. “If the houses burn down, they don’t want to have to buy it.” One listing on the line is a luxury Tuscan-style home in the hills of Santa Barbara with ocean views.

The generosity and compassion between agents and clients hasn’t shown to be one-sided; it goes both ways. When she and her husband had to evacuate their home, Compass agent Sofie Langhorne was touched to be offered her client’s second home in Santa Barbara, where Langhorne is currently staying. Langhorne said she had also been heartened by the messages of support she was receiving from the Tom Ferry real estate coach network, which she is part of, and from Compass agents around the country.

The fires haven’t stopped some California buyers from coming to open houses, according to Ruth Ann Bowe, who has a team at Village Properties Realtors and serves a number of communities in the line of the fires. Bowe had very good attendance this weekend at an open house for a home that has been on the market over four months.

Other business was being delayed due to the terrible air quality, however. “I had some people supposed to put their home on the market this week, but he and his wife are not well enough to do the packing,” Bowe said. Bowe was also planning to call a family who has relocated to SoCal from England — and who might be feeling uncertain about what to do next.

Over the weekend, a number of commentators talked about the connection between this year’s brutal wildfires in California and climate change. The New York Times reported that climate change made wildfires worse with its “drought and deluge” cycle — wet weather that leads to a lot of vegetation growth, followed by dry weather turning that extra grass into tinder, which creates fuel for the flames.

Jamie Faletti, a partner with Steve Epstein and the Epstein Partners, a third generation “Santa Barbarian” who lives in a voluntary evacuation zone himself, was philosophical about the wildfires.

“Every place has its benefits and drawbacks,” Faletti said. “We are lucky — in California the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.”

Email Gill South.