‘I Feel Very Vulnerable’: Dual Crises in California

Real estate pros on the West Coast grapple with unprecedented fires on top of the COVID-19 pandemic.
View of California wildfires from Thomas Henthorne's living room

© Thomas Henthorne

Real estate professional Thomas Henthorne captures the hazy, orange sky from his home outside San Francisco during wildfires.

Key takeaways:

  • Wildfires have scorched a record number of acres in California, Oregon, and Washington, and questions are emerging about the rebuilding process for affected areas.
  • Some real estate pros in the path of the fires have had to flee their homes.
  • While business has screeched to a halt in some places, buyers continue to flock to others despite fire danger.

First came COVID-19—and then the inferno.

Real estate professionals along the West Coast are grappling with dual crises as dozens of wildfires rage through California, Oregon, and Washington, scorching nearly 5 million acres—a startling record—and killing dozens. Agents say they’re concerned not only for their clients’ well-being but also their own. “I feel very vulnerable on top of COVID-19 and civil unrest,” says Amanda Mills, broker-owner of NextHome Family Tree Realty in Vacaville, Calif., outside Sacramento.

Mills hasn’t left her home in days because of poor air quality due to the smoke from wildfires. To the south of her, in San Francisco, residents have been advised to stay indoors to avoid the health effects of smoke inhalation. Still, Mills is trying as much as possible to help her clients who face emergency situations. Sellers who listed a $1.8 million home with her had to evacuate and asked if she would take in their pets, a dog and a turtle, while they sought temporary housing. Mills took the animals and is keeping them at home, where she can see—from a safe distance—structure after structure go up in flames. “It’s devastating,” she says.

The North Complex Fire has burned nearly 250,000 acres east of Sacramento, and the Creek Fire continues to burn east of Fresno, covering more than 175,000 acres. Millions of people living in the surrounding areas are dealing with toxic air quality, triple-digit temperatures, and rolling blackouts. Real estate practitioners there are fielding frantic middle-of-the-night phone calls from clients and a wave of canceled listings.

Jim Black, founder of All Cal Financial, a real estate lending company in California, says business was robust when the state emerged from lockdown due to the pandemic. There was a surge of home buyers relocating to Santa Cruz from San Francisco and San Jose—primarily seeking larger homes near forests, he says. But since then, the fires have devastated everything. Two of Black’s 16 employees have been displaced, and 14 clients lost their houses in the blazes. “The fires move so quickly—you don’t stand a chance,” Black says.

His company started working overtime to check in with clients, donate money to food banks, and perform extra appraisals for affected properties. “One thing that’s great about our community is that everyone bands together to make things happen,” he says.

As the fires have intensified over the last month, they’ve taken a personal toll on other real estate professionals. Lance Hulsey, broker-owner of Sol Property Advisors in Scotts Valley, Calif., was forced to evacuate his family from their home for two weeks. “As we drove away, we weren’t sure if we would see our house again,” Hulsey says. Luckily, their home survived, and after returning to begin cleaning up the ashes that built up in their yard outside, Hulsey’s family tried to get back to normal routines.

A few of Hulsey’s clients suffered either complete or partial property loss, so he’s trying to find them alternative housing. Hotels are expensive over time, so long-term housing is key. He’s also trying to deal with an influx of buyers into his county. He lives in a beach community near the desirable Redwoods area, and buyers are still looking to purchase there despite the fires. “That does not seem to have slowed,” Hulsey says. “Now with all of the people displaced, we need rentals for clients as well.”

But inventory is low—and so is morale. Felicia Mares, a sales associate with Abio Properties in Oakland, Calif., says she constantly has itchy eyes and a sore throat because of the smoke outside, and the ash falling on cars is a constant reminder of the Californians who have lost so much. “It’s overwhelming to know we won’t have relief from the smoke for a while,” she says.

Mares says she’s feeling conflicted about how the fires will affect the real estate market in the long run. Due to the pandemic, there’s been an exodus away from city living toward more spacious properties in the suburbs. But those properties tend to be closer to the fire danger zones. “California is already suffering from a housing shortage: we cannot afford to lose any more homes to these fires,” she says.

Dale Friday, broker-owner of Friday Realty in Santa Cruz, Calif., says smoke and ash covers land and water, creating an eerie environment for those not directly in the path of the fires. The ash continues to fall, a constant reminder of what’s happening in the surrounding region. “Emotionally, it’s surreal, and we are very concerned for everyone,” Friday says. He’s also concerned about how the fires will affect future business. The rebuilding process will be long, and it will overwhelm the local building departments and communities, Friday says.

On top of that, homeowners are confused by their insurance policies. The fires, plus the pandemic, have caused some to place their insurance plans on hold, confused about their coverage. One immediate impact of the fires is that insurers are, in some cases, holding off on writing insurance, which is delaying closings, says Thomas Henthorne, a sales associate with Golden Gate Sotheby’s International Realty in Greenbrae, Calif.

Insurance isn’t the only thing causing confusion. Bri Chmel, broker-owner of Live Love Santa Cruz, a boutique real estate group, says it’s unclear how many affected homeowners who lost their properties in her area will rebuild or sell their lots as is. “I do know that the Santa Cruz planning department is going to be slammed for the next few years, trying to approve all of the new houses that need to be built on all these lots,” Chmel says. “That is a bummer for [developers who are] submitting plans for other projects, as the county doesn’t move particularly fast.”

Chmel says one property she was planning to list burned down. The owners were remodeling the house and preparing to put it on the market in a couple of months, but it was consumed by flames along with most of the neighborhood. “I feel very bad for everybody involved, from the sellers to the contractor,” Chmel says. “It is just really sad to see everybody’s hard work not come to fruition.”