Fires Strike CUs, Members, Staff

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Credit unions across Southern California last week were reaching out to members and employees alike to provide whatever assistance they could as raging wildfires continued to destroy lives and property.

Numerous credit unions have been affected directly or indirectly by the conflagration. Many branches were closed, due either to their proximity to the flames or by the clouds of acrid smoke that blanketed the region. At press time, CUs were attempting to determine the number of homes belonging to employees and members that have been lost to the fires. With thousands of structures reduced to ashes, the numbers could be staggering.

The California Credit Union League-which saw its headquarters building in Rancho Cucamonga threatened by one of the many blazes -has established a disaster relief fund. Mark Lowe, a spokesman for the league, said the money raised will be used to assist staff, volunteers and members of credit unions who are victims of the fires.

Individually, some credit unions have also set up relief funds of their own, and were extending offers to members to skip payments on existing loans or take out emergency loans. Other CUs are assisting disaster relief efforts by gathering food and clothing for the thousands of people who have been displaced.

15 Branches Affected

The two massive blazes that combined forces near San Bernardino and burned a large area from Mt. Baldy in the west to Big Bear Lake, known as the "Grand Prix" fire, came within five to eight miles of the California league's headquarters in Rancho Cucamonga. The "Old" fire consumed hundreds of homes in the northern part of San Bernardino, then raced west to join the Grand Prix fire near Devore while it simultaneously advanced uphill to threaten the San Bernardino Mountain communities of Crestline, Lake Arrowhead, Running Springs and Big Bear. Parts of the Old fire crested the mountains and began moving east towards the high desert cities of Hesperia and Victorville.

San Bernardino-based Arrowhead Central CU has 22 branches in the Inland Empire. Jane Ronnfeldt, vice president of sales and marketing, said 15 have been affected.

"Some of those branches were in the direct path of either the Grand Prix or Old fires, and some were closed due to environmental concerns from the smoke," she said. "Our branches in Crestline, Big Bear and Victorville are closed."

Firefighters managed to save much of the village of Crestline, including Arrowhead Central CU's branch there. David Chatfield, the California league's president and CEO, lives in Cedarpines Park, a community near Crestline. According to Lowe, the fate of Chatfield's home was unknown at press time.

Ronnfeldt, who lives in East Highlands, was evacuated from her home twice. "I could see the fire from my bedroom window moving down the hill towards us. I've never been that close to flames before, and I don't ever want to again," she said.

Ronnfeldt also owns a house in Big Bear, and said she is hopeful it will be saved, along with the CU's Big Bear branch. "The firefighters have done such a tremendous job. I don't think we will lose any credit union property."

About half of Arrowhead Central CU's employees have been affected, she reported. Five employees lost their homes either in the Grand Prix or Old fires, while many were forced to flee to evacuation centers. The credit union does not know how many of its members lost homes.

In response to the disaster, ACCU has established two funds: a relief fund for its employees, and one that will provide emergency loans to its members.

California league spokesperson Mark Lowe described the situation this way. "At 11 a.m., it looked like dusk. You couldn't tell where the sun was because there was smoke from horizon to horizon," he said. "The sky was yellow and purple, like a bruise, and soot and ash were snowing down."

Many of the league's employees who live in Rancho Cucamonga or nearby communities have been affected by either the Grand Prix or Old fires.

Several were forced to evacuate, though no employee has lost a home, yet.

Eight Members Lose Homes

Valerie Spiro, VP-marketing with Norton Community Credit Union in San Bernardino, reported its three branches had not been damaged, but that eight of its 58 employees were unable to come to work because they had been ordered to evacuate. At press time, none had lost their homes.

Eight Norton members, however, suffered total loss of their homes in the Old fire. "We are doing skip-a-payment for those people for three months to help them get their lives back together. In addition, we are offering $500 emergency signature loans for those who need to replace items lost in the fire. We are helping people on a case-by-case basis as they come in."

Of the eight members who lost their houses, one had a mortgage with Norton. Spiro said the CU reduced the interest rate on the loan to 0% and reduced the payment for six months. "We are coming up with as many things as we can to help our members."

Spiro said the CU is collecting clothes and food to take to the San Bernardino International Airport, which is a major evacuation site. "Our employees are cleaning out their closets and helping people in the community."

Neighbors Lose Home

Meanwhile, in San Diego, where at least 12 people had died as the result of the Cedar fire, credit unions were also hit hard.

Kevin Moyle, marketing manager for USE Credit Union in San Diego, lives in Scripps Ranch, a few miles north of Qualcomm Stadium via the 15 Freeway. Moyle told The Credit Union Journal his neighborhood lost at least 350 homes. "My wife and I are safe, and our house was spared. We were very lucky," he said. "Some of our employees and members may have lost their homes- we aren't sure yet."

USE has nine branches, five in the San Diego area. Two of those are on the campuses of San Diego State University and the University of California in La Jolla. With the schools closed, Moyle said the credit union was forced to close the branches because they no longer had the security provided by campus police.

"Our other branches were open, but so many of our employees were evacuated, we had maybe 40% of our staff on [Oct. 27]." A large black cloud hung over San Diego for three days, Moyle reported.

Uncomfortably Close View

Grace Mayo, president and CEO of Telesis Credit Union in Chatsworth, Calif., had an uncomfortably close front-row seat for the "Simi/Val Verde" fire, which threatened numerous communities along the 118 Ronald Reagan Freeway that connects the northern San Fernando Valley to Simi Valley in Ventura County. Mayo was evacuated from her hillside house Oct. 25.

"We watched it engulf the hillside all night," she said. "But only two homes in our neighborhood burned. We are so lucky compared to those people in the major fires in the rest of Southern California, especially San Bernardino and San Diego. I have so much sympathy for those people."

Mayo said Telesis will send money to Arrowhead Central CU's relief fund to help ACCU employees who have lost their homes.

"We are working with the Red Cross in our community," she said. "We will collect food, clothes and money, and if there is any left over, we will send it to others."

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