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By John Voket

RISMEDIA, Nov. 8, 2007-By 7:30 a.m. November 5, most of the energy being devoted to the recent southern California wildfires had turned from suppression to recovery. Firefighters who had been flown in from points around the globe had managed to douse flames that ravaged almost 400,000 acres in San Diego County alone.

While some real estate and industry support professionals were displaced or prevented from accessing their businesses, sometimes for days, others were able to maintain various levels of client services, whether it was simply a cold drink and a place to sit quietly and regroup, to full-scale relocation and rental assistance.

At the height of the fires, in Southern California’s seven counties designated as emergency areas, the Realogy family of companies, including Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, Century 21, Coldwell Banker, ERA, Sotheby’s International Realty, NRT Incorporated, Cartus and Title Resource Group counted more than 1,500 employees, 28,000 sales associates and 650 offices, including company-owned offices and franchise affiliates affected directly or indirectly.

On October 26, Richard A. Smith, vice chairman and president of Realogy Corporation recognized that the disaster had hit home.

“We’re doing everything within our power to reach out to our colleagues and to raise awareness and funds for all the victims affected by the fires,” said Smith in a release. He encouraged anyone able to join in fundraising efforts to help in any way they could while the company stepped up with an immediate matching pledge of $100,000.

On the ground, Realogy’s company-owned brokerage operations in the Greater San Diego, Temecula Valley and Desert Regions set up 27 of its Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage office locations in San Diego as drop-off points for needed items destined for American Red Cross relief centers as well as local evacuation shelters. These local real estate offices have been providing free office services such as telephone, fax and copying services to anyone who has been displaced by the fire and requires assistance in making insurance claims or conducting other fire-related business since the first homes were consumed.

Linda Harbert, broker and branch manager at the Rancho Bernardo Office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, never thought she would see such devastation in her own community where her office has been a responsive commercial neighbor for decades.

“The agents have been trying to help. We had a couple of agents evacuated, came into office and opened up the phones taking calls and trying to help people,” Harbert said. “Many of them are still shell-shocked, of course. One of our managers just got back from helping a neighbor sift through their rubble.”

Harbert is being told that residents whose homes were affected or destroyed completely are looking at one to two years to rebuild. And while many with children were hopeful about finding temporary accommodations in their school districts, Ms Harbert said local rental properties were gone the first day.

Stephen Rodgers, president of Prudential California said a number of his company’s offices were closed for 3 – 4 days after fires.

“We lost the services of a dozen agents who lost homes, and we had numerous clients and listings that were affected,” Rodgers said.

He echoed the statements from many who saw the real estate community bounce back with immediate and comprehensive levels of assistance.

“Our fire victim fund collected $80,000 within just a few days of the fires, while dozens of agents and support staff stationed themselves at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego helping in any way we could,” he said. In most of the affected regions, Rodger added, the fires pushed off pending closings for at least a week.

“But as tragic as it was it did a lot of good bringing communities together while reinforcing the value in real estate and in the real estate business,” Rodgers said. “You know, we love where we live and love what we do here – just tell everybody Pru Cal is holding its own.”

Belinda Austin, loan officer at Ranch and Coast Mortgage Group took evacuees into her home. But some of her greatest concerns were for the life-changing deals that were left hanging in the balance while the immediate threat of the fires was being handled on the front lines and in the neighborhoods in and around San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles Counties.

“This stressful situation has left many families unsure of what to do, even if the home has not been damaged. Knowing what to do now can make a world of difference later,” she said in a release.

As a board member and legislative chair for the San Diego North County chapter of the California Association of Mortgage Brokers, Austin understands how important it is for people to receive pertinent information at this time.

“If you are currently in escrow on a refinance or purchase, and your home has already been appraised, your appraiser will need to go back to the property and take a picture, to assure the lender that the structure has not been affected,” she said. “For those not affected by the fires, now is the time to check in with your insurance agent to make sure that you have adequate coverage, in case of future emergencies.”

From the moment the first few evacuations began, the California Association of Realtors was ready to assist members who were impacted by the wildfires through its Disaster Relief Fund. The Association established the fund in the wake of the 2003 California wildfires, and grants provided by the fund are being used to help Association members and their staff who have incurred substantial losses due to wildfires and other disasters by distributing grants of $1,000 to $10,000.

Many support industries serving the affected real estate markets were jeopardized as well. Companies like San Diego-based Z57, an Internet marketing company serving 16,000 agents, were forced to limit access to their headquarters or shut down completely for up to several days.

Don Gerould, Z57’s president, said by the morning of October 22, a skeleton team arrived at the headquarters and began contacting more than 100 employees advising them to remain at home and follow the instructions of officials and local community notification systems if they suddenly were forced to evacuate.

“Customer service called real estate agents to postpone the next few days’ nonessential appointments,” Gerould said. “Many Z57 managers and employees worked remotely from Monday through Wednesday.”

Gerould designated a taskforce to troubleshoot emergency customer v-mail and e-mails, and he was happy to report that at all times, Z57 was fully prepared operationally with multiple disaster back up systems both onsite and offsite.

“At no time did any of Z57 agents lose their Internet presence during the fires,” Gerould said. “The facility was not damaged. Z57 was at 85 percent staffing by noon Thursday (October 25).”