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How Business Owners Are Dealing With the Most Lethal Fires in California’s Modern History

Deadly fires have disrupted businesses and lives across California, and the effects are expected to go well beyond the state’s borders.

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BY Guadalupe Gonzalez - 15 Nov 2018

dealing with lethal fires

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Jim Murphy was sleeping in his Bell Canyon, California home when his wife jolted him awake at 2 a.m. last Friday.

"I really think it's glowing orange on the hill above us," she told him, worried that the wildfires, which erupted Thursday afternoon in Southern California, were edging closer and closer to their two-story home. Though skeptical, Murphy got into his car and drove up to the hill. There, he saw a blazing fire charging towards him, from three different directions. He texted his wife: "Start packing up immediately. We have to get out of here."

Within 12 hours, the five-bedroom house his children called home had been reduced to ashes.


Jim Murphy (left) and his family.CREDIT: Courtesy Jim Murphy

Murphy and his family are part of the more than 200,000 people estimated to be displaced by a series of wildfires engulfing parts of Northern and Southern California. Firefighters are struggling to contain the flames because the strong Santa Ana winds hitting the region keep sparking flare-ups. The infernos dubbed Camp Fire in the north and the Woolsey Fire in the south have ravaged nearly 230,000 acres--roughly six times the size of Pittsburgh--and destroyed more than 7,300 properties. At least 48 people are dead, and more than 200 are still missing. It is the most lethal fire-related disaster in California's modern history.

"It's definitely difficult, but I am very thankful for what I have and that everyone is safe," says Murphy, founder and CEO of BroadVoice, a Northridge, California-based company that provides phone services over the internet, also known as VoIP. (Northridge is a neighborhood of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley that is so far unscathed by the fires.) "You have to look at the bright side and realize that things could be a lot worse," says the entrepreneur, who is currently living in a hotel with his family, while also covering hotel expenses for employees displaced by the fires.

A charred ladder next to a pristine basketball net, where Jim Murphy's Bell Canyon home used to stand, evidence the fires’ unpredictability. CREDIT: Courtesy Jim Murphy

Now is obviously a trying time for business owners like Murphy who have been directly affected by the fires. However, even businesses far beyond the California border may yet feel its effect this holiday season. Last year, the state's outbound shipments took a hit during a three-week period after the October 2017 Sonoma fire, according to data from research firm FTR, which specializes in the freight and transportation industry.

An Amazon fulfillment center near the Sacramento International Airport has been closed since Saturday, and there's currently no timeline for its re-opening, the Sacramento Bee reports. Insured losses from Camp Fire, which decimated the entire town of Paradise, California, are currently estimated to reach $6 billion, according to a Moody's report released Monday.

Of course, businesses in California are likely to take the brunt of the still raging fires. Between dealing with power and internet outages to air quality alerts and just generally figuring out whether and how to respond to the humanitarian crisis after the fires subside, business owners will be occupied well into the all important holiday shopping season--the biggest sales period all year for many companies.

Sensitivity Training

There's also the human factor. For owners who can open up shop--perhaps they're near the burn zones but aren't in them--it's a question of whether doing so is insensitive.

"A lot of the times we look at it from the business end and [ask] 'Can we stay open?'" says Lawrence Nolan, founder and CEO of Hardcore Fitness, a chain of gyms with 18 locations in the U.S., half of them in southern California. "I think the bigger question is, 'Should we?'" While his clients workout indoors, smoke can sometimes make its way inside, he says. Last wildfire season, he opted to suspend classes at the locations in the path of large smoky gusts. He's prepared to do it again this year if the air quality near his gyms worsens.

Co-owners John Tajiri (left) and Linda Coburn outside their Pedego store the day before the fires. CREDIT: Courtesy Pedego 101

Linda Coburn also has mixed feelings about reopening. She operates a Pedego location, a shop in Westlake Village, California, that sells and rents electric bicycles. Her store endured power outages and ash, which seeped in through a closed back door, covering her store's merchandise. The shop is back in business but isn't actively doing rentals. "I try not to encourage people to do things that don't seem really smart to me," she says. "Like riding into a fire zone."

The key is to be sensitive to your community--and to employees, says Lindsey Carnett, founder and CEO of Marketing Maven, a public relations firm out of Camarillo, California. "The biggest thing is to have empathy towards your employees," she says, noting that over the interim she has instructed her staff to work from home should they need to. "You don't know what everybody's situation is, if somebody lives with a parent with asthma."

On the day the fires started, Carnett, who is also a mom to a six-week-old baby, woke up at 3:30 a.m. to a televised press conference about the mass shooting that killed 12 people at the Borderline Bar & Grill, a bar she frequented in college located in Thousand Oaks, California. Her husband was a bouncer there "back in the day," the officer who was shot went to her gym, and one of the boys who died was her sister-in-law's cousin. "A lot of personal connections there," she says.

A dozen hours later, the wildfires broke out and the evacuations began. Thankfully, she says, her home and offices have not sustained any damages. Work keeps her focused, in what she describes as a "high-intensity mode."

The fires' unpredictability, including where the next flare-up could burn, however, doesn't stray far from her mind. "We're kind of at the edge of our seats wondering 'are we going to be OK tonight?'" she says.

The city is carrying out mandatory power outages a few miles away from her office, far enough it's unlikely to happen in her area. "I'm hoping that's not the case, but if it is, we just have to be flexible and go with the flow," she says. "That's just what you do when you're an entrepreneur."

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