Life-saving tips from Realtors caught in the California wildfires

With the Mendocino Complex fire expected to rage until September, agents, often affected in deeply personal ways, offer tips to stave off havoc in the weeks ahead

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California’s vast Mendocino Complex fire — comprosed of the River fire and the larger Ranch fire — was upgraded to California’s biggest wildfire ever, overtaking last December’s SoCal Thomas inferno, officials declared Tuesday.

Extending 454 square miles, an expanse similar in size to the city of Los Angeles, the wildfire by Tuesday had scorched nearly 300,000 acres in Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties and destroyed 75 homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Bobby Dutcher

With the fire expected to blaze until September, real estate professionals have endured the inferno alongside neighbors, often in deeply personal ways, while many others, having lived through similar wildfires, offered tips of their own to help stave off havoc in the weeks ahead.

“Fuel reduction is the only thing you can control,” said Bobby Dutcher, a broker with Re/Max Full Spectrum and a board member of the California Association of Realtors. “You can’t control heat or wind, but fuel is the one thing that you can control with your landscaping.”

“If we want to save millions of trees, we have to cut down thousands,” he added.

Dutcher should know. On Monday, the Kelseyville, California, agent learned that the Ranch fire had devastated a family cabin settled on 160 acres of land on the Upper Lake region of California while annihilating 60 percent of the forestry.

“The family cabin is just rubble,” Dutcher told Inman. “We are not going to rebuild.”

Bobby Dutcher’s house, before and after the fires struck last week.

As a director of the California Association of Realtors, Dutcher would like to direct lobbying efforts to push a fuel reduction program, despite some pushback from residents who don’t want to see trees and other forestry harmed.

In his role as a Re/Max Full Spectrum broker, meanwhile, his advice to homeowners is to keep rain gutters clear at all times. If they get clogged with weeds and needles, they can become a magnet for the wildfire, he said.

He gave this advice to a homeowner from Toronto, who did as he suggested in his first year of living in the area. But in the second year he forgot, and, while his home was lost in the 2015 Valley fire, his more seasoned neighbors’ homes were untouched.

“Some people have been evacuated five times in the last four years,” he said. “It’s gut wrenching, you think you will never see your home again.”

In nearby Lakeport, meanwhile, Lake County Association of Realtors Executive Scott Knickmeyer said he was grateful his town had, so far, kept the fire at bay, in part by enforcing mandatory evacuation orders. A board meeting will be held Thursday to discuss other ways the real estate industry can help clients and fellow residents over the next several weeks as the wildfires continue to expand.

“I’m aware of at least one agent who lost a rental property in Scotts Valley and another one who lost a family home in the Ranch fire,” he said.

Scott Knickmeyer

The California Association of Realtors, meanwhile, stressed that a Disaster Relief Fund was available to Realtor victims of the Mendocino Complex fire. Grants provided by the fund between $1,000 and $10,000 are used to help Realtors, association members and staff who have incurred substantial losses due to wildfires and other disasters. Anyone interested in donating to the fund can do so online.

For those surrounding counties not affected this time around by the wildfires, Lesli Langslet, association executive of the Coastal Mendocino Association of Realtors, said the increase in wildfires has still prompted some big questions about the effect of global warming on California.

“I think that that’s been a conversation for the last few years — especially last year with so many homes destroyed in Santa Rosa,” Langslet said. “We’ve got to do something different with global warming — how we work with utilities and so on.”

Dutcher expects the fires to slow demand in his niche of lifestyle properties, though he said he had already had some calls from wealthy investors looking for deals on damaged ranches. He believes properties will be cheap due to supply and demand.

The broker, whose wife is an insurance agent, also expects some home insurers will leave the California market. In these mammoth wildfires, homes are not just being burnt to the ground but are being damaged by fire retardents, water and smoke.

“Insurers can’t take billions of losses every year,” he said. “It’s a risk that we have to live with.”

Email Gill South.