How California REALTORS® Fought Wildfires

Real estate professionals stepped in to save their neighborhoods from deadly blazes.

Emerging among the many stories of loss from recent wildfires in Northern California are heroic tales of real estate professionals who stood in the path of danger, trying to save their own homes and those of their neighbors from flying embers. Brokerages in affected areas also have banded together to rush emergency supplies to victims who lost everything in the blazes.

The wildfires—which raged for nearly two weeks and are among the deadliest in California history—killed at least 42 people, including Carol Collins, a REALTOR® and sales associate with Century 21 Alliance in Santa Rosa. An estimated 7,000 homes and buildings were reduced to ash as 70 mph wind gusts helped the fires advance at a rate of “more than a football field every three seconds,” according to news reports.

So far, the North Bay Association of REALTORS® estimates that about 44 real estate professionals across Northern California have lost their homes in the wildfires. Many more were evacuated and remain unable to return to their homes because they’re smoke-filled or in neighborhoods that have become impassable.

At the height of the disaster, practitioners such as Tim McCall, CEO and team leader of the Napa Market Center at Keller Williams Realty in Santa Rosa, and fellow team members Mauro Vazquez and Andrew Ryan sprang into action. They hurried to McCall’s parents’ aid as the fires inched closer to their home in Fountaingrove, an area in northern Santa Rosa that saw some of the highest property losses.

Tom Freireich, head of operations for the KW Cares Disaster Relief Team, coordinates a response plan with the local Keller Williams franchise leaders in the areas affected by the California wildfires.

“It looked like a volcano erupted over a hill,” McCall says. “There was an outrageous amount of dark smoke that overtook the entire horizon. These huge homes were all burning. You’d see an inferno of fire shooting up through trees.”

But the three real estate professionals refused to back down. McCall, Vazquez, and Ryan noticed that the fires seemed to be spreading rapidly via wooden fences surrounding many homes. They started to push down the fences, and as little fires sprang up, they’d use garden hoses to put them out. For two and a half days, they worked to contain small fires in the area and prevent them from spreading to homes, helping to save about 30 houses in one neighborhood, including McCall’s parents’. “Everything else around burned,” McCall says. “There isn’t a structure outside of our neighborhood that is left.” 

This map of Fountaingrove, provided by Tim McCall, shows the level of property damage the neighborhood suffered. The red icons represent destroyed homes and structures, and the yellow icons mark properties that were damaged. The area circled in black is the neighborhood McCall, Vazquez, and Ryan fought to save.



Losses Mount

Many others weren’t able to save their homes, such as Erin George, SFR, a sales associate with Sotheby’s International Realty in Sonoma, Calif. She and her family evacuated their home in the middle of the night. From across the freeway, they watched from their car as their home and 190 others in their neighborhood were engulfed in flames. On Monday, she returned to her neighborhood to find nothing but rows of chimneys where homes once stood.

“It was like the chimneys were the tombstones for the homes,” she says. “It marked the death of holidays, birthdays, and the joys of moving in and all the life a house holds.” George, whose family is staying at a friend’s house, adds that she’s grateful for the outpouring of support from the real estate community and her peers. She’s been told it may take three or four years until some homes are rebuilt.

The fires also will have a strong impact on her real estate business going forward. Just a week after her own house burned down, George was already back to work and writing an offer for a fellow fire victim who was purchasing a home.

The wildfires caused about $3 billion in estimated property damage, with about 7,000 homes and buildings destroyed. This photo shows a neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Jeff Collaso, a broker with Century 21 NorthBay Alliance in Novato, Calif., also lost his home. Where scenic landscapes full of greenery and forests once stood, he now struggles to even find which home is his among the ash. Collaso is back to work, too, not only to start the lengthy process of rebuilding his own home but helping his neighbors and clients do the same. “The hardest part is not knowing when we’ll get back to normal life,” Collaso says. “Right now, we’re all waiting to put the pieces back together.”

His area was already facing a housing shortage prior to the fires, but now the problem has accelerated as wildfire victims search for emergency shelter. Any home that may have been lingering on the market for one to two months is now under contract, Collaso says. His office has fielded 200 to 300 calls from victims looking for rentals; his area saw vacancy rates of 1 percent to 2 percent prior to the fires.

Stepping in to Help

Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Wine Country Group, which has offices throughout Northern California, took out ads in five local publications to offer office space to victims needing a place to work or Wi-Fi or help charging their electronics. The brokerage is also providing information to victims about how to sort out their housing needs. It has collected more than 200 Halloween costumes to give out next week to children whose families lost their homes. “The families may have nothing, but at least we can give their child a costume to enjoy one night,” says Randy Coffman, the brokerage’s president.  

The real estate community has been offering ranches to house lost pets, and many agents are contacting owners of vacation homes to see if they are willing to rent out their properties for longer stays.

The KW Cares Disaster Relief Team provided meals over a 10-day period to real estate professionals and their families who were affected by the wildfires.

KW Cares, the charitable arm of Keller Williams Realty, employed its 18-wheeler truck to pass out generators, food, and necessities to agents who lost their homes. The company spent 10 days helping 10 of its agents whose homes were destroyed, as well as 45 additional agents and their families who had been displaced because of the fires. Keller Williams agencies in neighboring areas also gave gift cards and suitcases to victims, says Tom Freireich, head of operations of the KW Disaster Relief Team. “This is the sixth disaster response I’ve been on, and this was a tough one,” says Freireich. “The devastation was total. Homes were completely destroyed, cars melted to the ground. The outpouring of money from our agents has been amazing.”

KW Cares has already distributed $1.8 million in emergency grants to wildfire victims and to those affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma. The charity also raised another $10 million over the past 60 days to distribute to affected agents for longer-term support. “In this area, we’ve been through wildfires and earthquakes before, but this is the first time the devastation has been so vast and so staggering,” says Diana Gorsiski, president of the North Bay Association of REALTORS®. “There are an overwhelming amount of people without homes. To rebuild these communities will take years.”

The Keller Williams disaster response team distributed emergency generators and other supplies to victims.

Gorsiski says the real estate community in Northern California is warning homeowners in the area about scams, price gouging, and predatory lending as they begin the rebuilding process.

With the fires mostly contained, families this week began returning to their homes. Many were outfitted in painter suits to sift through the ash, looking for jewelry or anything that may be salvageable. “The news headlines have already moved on, but for the people affected, this is hardly over,” Freireich says. “The recovery is just beginning, and it’s going to take years. We can’t let this be forgotten.”

REALTOR® Among Dead

Carol Collins, 76, died Oct. 9 at her home in Santa Rosa, Calif., when the wildfires swept through her neighborhood. Collins, a member of the North Bay Association of REALTORS®, became a broker in 1987 and mostly worked at Century 21 offices during her career. She was semiretired but had closed a transaction just a few days prior to her death. “She was successful, career-focused, and very hardworking. She was quick-witted, with a great sense of humor, and an animal lover,” a family member, Roxanne Swasey, told ABC News. “She was a positive influence on a lot of people’s lives in helping them buy homes, and she felt a lot of gratitude in being able to do so.”