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Déjà Vu All Over Again

November 2018 Insight

I hope readers will forgive me if I stray a little from the more typical real estate, economics, investing, and geopolitical topics normally covered in the Altus Insight.

A little over a year ago three of the ten worst fires in California history blazed in the North Bay counties of Napa and Sonoma. Our main office and a good portion of our team lives in Sonoma County and three of us lost homes. Others were evacuated and out of their homes for weeks. Yes, it was a set back for the business but much more so on the individual level for each that were personally impacted.

It wasn’t all tragic. There were many funny experiences that came out of that time. Our weekly team meeting held on the Thursday after the fire started (and was still burning) was mostly held over Skype because people were spread all over creation. The team, as they are wont to do, commenced the normal good-natured ribbing of each other. This particular meeting was more enthusiastic in this regard than most as it was a great opportunity to relieve some of the stress of the past few days. I became the main target of the ribbing. On Tuesday those of us able had gone into the office and worked together to get the weekly bills paid. Apparently, the shirt I had on didn’t fit too well, and on Thursday I was really hearing it. I had to explain that it wasn’t my shirt, I had borrowed it from my friend where we stayed the first couple nights of the fire. The only shirt I owned was the one I was wearing when we left home the night of the fire, and between the smoke and two days of use it was far beyond recoverable.

A few days later we moved into our rental house. It was a relief to take a hot shower and be able to relax a little bit. Except, when it came time to get out of the shower I realized that we didn’t have any towels. Later we discovered we didn’t have razor blades, or gym passes, or basketball shoes, or…the list went on and on with us still looking for, and being surprised when we couldn’t find things we thought we had even months down the road. With the right attitude, each of those instances was a good opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

But, despite 6000 structures being destroyed, we were still able to find immediate shelter the night of the fire, and a rental unit within a week, and had grocery stores to buy food. We still had our jobs and businesses. We had police stations, working stop lights, a government building to go to for rebuild permits. Other than our house, we had everything we needed to live normal life. I don’t want to diminish the psychological and emotional impact the North Bay fires created because for many (especially those who lost loved ones) it was and is severe. But even as bad as it was, it could have been worse, though it would have been hard to imagine at the time.

The biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah talks about the two cities’ destruction by what seems to have been a lightning and hail storm. Estimates are the cities would have had over 20,000 inhabitants.

In AD 79 the Italian city of Pompeii was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. The population of Pompeii is estimated to have been between 16,000 and 20,000 at the time of the eruption. Remains of 1,500 people have been found, but the total death toll is unknown.

In World War II the first nuclear bombs decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More recently a tsunami destroyed large portions of coastal towns in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.  A Columbian landslide destroyed the city of Mocoa, and an earthquake and tsunami in Japan destroyed 120,000 buildings. I am sure there are countless other examples throughout history of incredible destruction and loss, but it can be so hard for us to wrap our heads around the devastation because it isn’t here and it isn’t us (although I was in Thailand during the tsunami).

The North Bay fires gave a small picture into that sort of experience, but as mentioned above, we still had all the infrastructure needed for most peoples’ lives to go on. Now, in our backyard and only 100 miles away, the town of Paradise (and the surrounding area) is dealing with a situation far beyond what we experienced, and much closer to the devastation of the various examples listed above.

The Camp Fire has destroyed or damaged an estimated 18,000 structures. By comparison, the Tubbs Fire that burned through a swath of Santa Rosa burned 5,643 structures. The Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns fires that burned in Sonoma and Napa County combined to burn 7,779 structures. A huge amount to be sure, but still less than half of that of the Camp Fire.

Estimates are as high as 50,000 people have been left homeless, far larger than the displacement impact of Pompeii. As of this past Monday, FEMA has provided assistance to almost 18,000 people, but still has at least of month left of time in Chico adding people taking additional applications.

The town of Paradise, where the most concentrated destruction occurred, has basically been wiped off the map. Some estimates are that as much as 95% of the town is gone. Before the fire Paradise was home to a little under 27,000 people. Now? Nobody, because the people are not yet allowed back into their properties. In a week, in two weeks? No one knows, but it can’t be more than a couple thousand at the absolute most.

It isn’t just homes that are gone. Businesses are gone. Jobs are gone. City services are gone.

Sonoma County, where most of the damage of the Tubbs and Nuns fires occurred in 2017, has a population a little over 500,000. If we assumed all the damage from those fires occurred in Sonoma County (it didn’t), it calculates to a ratio of 1 burned structure for each 71 Sonoma County citizens. In Butte County, where the Camp Fire burned, a structure was destroyed for every 12 people in the County, or roughly 6 times higher than the most pessimistic Sonoma County analysis. I know hundreds of people that lost homes in Sonoma County. I can’t fathom my network being 6 times more afflicted than it was last year. It is completing mind boggling.

And stats don’t tell the true human cost. There is the tragic loss of life. And there are entire generations of families that have lost everything. We had friends and family to reach out to for help when we lost our home. Imagine if all those friends and family also lost everything. Who is there to reach out to?

The day after the Camp Fire my beautiful wife headed to Costco with my pickup and memories of our own experience, and filled up the bed with diapers, jackets, underwear, and toiletries. That afternoon we headed to Butte County, not knowing where we were taking the purchased items but pretty sure there would be a need. At a Starbucks in Orland, CA, a good 45 minute drive from the fire, I overheard three ladies talking about the fire and their experiences; have obviously been directly impacted. I excused myself into their conversation to ask about their wellbeing. At that point none of the three had yet to lose their homes but all were evacuated. They in turn gave me the phone number of someone else they knew who had lost their home and needed supplies. We called the number given and drove to Chico to meet the lady. She and her husband lost their home that they had lived in for several decades. Four children also lived in the Paradise area and all had lost their homes. Those four children in turn had 14 children. Three generations, 5 lost homes, 20 people homeless; and the family they would normally rely on in difficult times dealing with the same incredible tragedy.

Melissa and I, and really all of the Altus team, were highly appreciative of everyone’s generosity last year. We couldn’t/can’t be the beneficiary of such outreach and then sit aside when something even more severe occurs. With a strong desire to help, Altus and its executive/advisory board has pledged to donate up to $25,000 in matching funds for donations we are able to arrange to help those impacted by the Camp Fire.  That would be as much as $50,000 in funds to help those in need. It is a small drop in the total scheme of destruction but could change the lives for those whom receive benefit from these donations. We have raised several thousand dollars against the available matching funds but there are still several thousand dollars of matching funds left. If you or anyone you know was wanting to help we would love double the impact of your donation. With these donations being tax deductible, and with marginal tax rates being as high as 50%, each donated dollar could save you 50 cents on your taxes. Another example of doing well by doing good.

Over the past week or so we have researched organizations that are helping those impacted by the fires. Please contact us if you would like to make a donation and we can supply the information and make sure we follow through with our own matched donation.

Special thanks to Michael Adler and Carrie Zsambok, Mark and Stacy Nelson, and Peter Simon and Felicia Strankman for their assistance in making this match amount possible.

With thoughts for our northern neighbors,

About the Author: Forrest Jinks is CEO of Altus Equity Group Inc and a licensed real estate broker. Forrest has decades of experience as principal in a variety of alternative investment segments including real estate (residential rehab, in-fill development, multi-family, office and retail), debt, and small business start-up (online marketing and site retail). He can be reached at


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