SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Wildfires that have raged across Southern California have affected credit unions, their employees and their members. Now, the credit unions are beginning to look at what they can do to help those affected by the devastating fires. At press time (Wednesday, Oct. 29), there were no reports of any credit unions being damaged or destroyed by the wildfires, although some remained threatened. Gov. Gray Davis called the fires “the worst disaster the state has ever faced.” He said damages could be in the billions of dollars. The cost to the state of fighting the conflagrations could reach upwards of $100 million. There were 10 major fires still burning Wednesday in the counties of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego. The fires, some of which are believed to be caused by arson, have consumed more than 550,000 acres, destroyed an estimated 2,000 homes and left 16 people dead. President Bush has declared the four counties major disaster areas, making residents and businesses eligible for federal assistance. Tens of thousands of residents have been forced from their homes, among them David L. Chatfield, president and chief executive officer of the California/Nevada Credit Union League. Chatfield, who was in Texas when the fires broke out, rushed back to California on Saturday but was unable to get to his home in the San Bernardino mountains. With the area still under an evacuation order – and with fires raging in the area – the fate of his house remained unknown at press time. The league office in Rancho Cucamonga, another community that was hit by the wildfires, was not damaged. Acrid smoke and ashes filled the air there, as it did throughout much of Southern California. “Our world is orange and gray and snowflakes are coming down, except they’re ashes,” said Debra Gannaway, president and chief executive officer at Norton Community Credit Union in San Bernardino. “It’s a surrealistic world.” A league spokesman said the league’s annual meeting and convention, scheduled Nov. 17-19 in downtown San Diego, would go ahead as planned. Areas around San Diego have been devastated by the fires, which were still burning out of control Wednesday. Credit unions in affected areas in Southern California have either been forced to close or have curtailed services. On Oct. 28, a mandatory evacuation order in the resort town of Big Bear forced Arrowhead Credit Union’s branch there to close. A branch in Crestline in the San Bernardino mountains had to be closed earlier because of the fire and originally was not expected to survive the flames. Its status was not known. Another branch in Highland was closed because of smoke and ash in the air. “It’s a day to day thing,” said Jane Ronnfeldt, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Arrowhead. “Our branches are not in any danger,” added Gannaway. “Unfortunately I can’t say that for our members.” The fires were burning Wednesday primarily on three fronts: San Diego County, the San Bernardino mountain towns and Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Several other smaller fires were reported. The fires forced the closure of freeways and roads, making it difficult if not impossible for credit union employees to get to work. Some employees had to evacuate their homes on short notice. “Some of them left their homes with just the clothes on their backs,” Ronnfeldt said. In the San Diego area, some credit unions were closed for several days or offered limited services. San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy had urged businesses to close on Monday to allow firefighters easier access to the fires. Among those that closed or offered limited services were Cabrillo CU, Mission Federal CU and branches of North Island Financial CU. Despite the fact that the fires were still burning and the situation was changing from day to day, credit union officials said they were already looking at ways to help those affected by the fires. In some cases, that might take the form of low interest or zero interest personal loans, allowing them to skip payments or forgiving interest, they said. Ronnfeldt said Arrowhead branches would serve as a collection point for donations of cash and non-perishable goods for the American Red Cross, which was operating more than 22 evacuation centers and shelters in Southern California. Arrowhead was also providing information to members on how to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency, insurance companies and others for assistance, she said. “We’ll try to do whatever we can to help people when they come in, whatever their needs are,” she said. Both Norton and Arrowhead are located near the San Bernardino International Airport – formerly Norton Air Force Base – where an evacuation center has been set up in a hangar. Tanker planes that are dumping water and retardant on the fires are taking off from the airport. “It sounds like we’re in a war zone,” both Gannaway and Ronnfeldt said. – [email protected]

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