In California, Rebuilding From The Ashes

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As the last of California's wildfires neared containment, credit unions from across the nation offered cash donations and established emergency loan programs to help the thousands of people who lost homes and property.

State fire officials estimated the damage at 750,000 acres burned, approximately 3,600 homes lost and 22 deaths.

San Diego County was one of the hardest hit areas. There were three major fires here, including the largest in the state: the deadly "Cedar" fire that killed 14 people, blackened 280,000 acres and burned more than 2,200 homes.

The $130-million Cabrillo Credit Union, based in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood that lost hundreds of homes to the Cedar fire, has responded with a special "recovery loan" to fire victims. According to Anne Legg, vice president of marketing, 241 Cabrillo members live in Scripps Ranch, though the 18,500-member CCU does not know how many of those members' homes were burned.

Legg said members who lost their homes can borrow up to $10,000 at 0% interest for 10 weeks. People who live or work in San Diego County who were not members at the time of the fire are eligible to join the credit union and would be able to apply for a recovery loan, she added.

California Coast Credit Union, one of the largest CUs in San Diego, established a $100,000 relief fund to provide assistance to fire victims. Anyone who was a member as of Oct. 26 who lost his or her primary residence to one of the wildfires can receive a $1,000 donation. The fund is available to the first 100 members who apply by Nov. 30 and can show proof of their loss.

Jim McPheters, California Coast's president and CEO, told The Credit Union Journal seven members have applied for the relief donations so far.

"They can use that money however they want: for supplies, a hotel room, food, a down payment for a car," he said. "We are still trying to determine how many of our members lost homes, but we suspect it is at least three or four dozen. We will evaluate what people need on a case-by-case basis. I imagine most homeowners had insurance, but we don't know if they had full coverage. We are prepared to do whatever we can, within reason, to assist our members."

McPheters lives in the rural community of Alpine, east of San Diego. He was out of town when the Cedar fire started, and when he returned could not get back to his house. McPheters spent 24 hours living in his motorhome in the parking lot of the CU. When he was allowed to return home, his house did not have electricity for a week.

"That is only a minor inconvenience compared to what happened to other people," he said. "Everybody in San Diego was affected by the fires, one way or another."

In addition to the relief fund, the $730-million California Coast CU has established an "emergency financial services hotline" for information on how to delay or reduce their payments on existing loans, obtain priority loan processing for any cash needs, increase their credit lines, perform penalty-free withdrawals from certificate accounts, and get free replacements for checks, ATM, credit, and debit cards.

Two large fires combined forces near San Bernardino, causing widespread destruction. Norton Community Credit Union and Arrowhead Central CU, both based in San Bernardino, have established programs to aid their members while the flames were still burning.

In addition to Norton's headquarters in San Bernardino, it has branches in Redlands and Yucaipa. VP-Marketing Valerie Spiro said all three branches were safe. No Norton employees lost homes, but some members were not as fortunate.

12 Members Lost Homes

"We have 12 members who lost their homes," she said. "Three of those had their mortgages with us, and we reduced the interest rate on their loans to 0% and reduced the payment for six months."

Spiro said members affected by the fires can apply to skip loan payments for three months to help them get their lives back together. The CU also is offering $500 emergency signature loans for those who need to replace property.

Norton is continuing its efforts to collect clothes for people who are in evacuation centers. Spiro said employees at Digital Insight, one of the CU's technology vendors, delivered an "avalanche" of clothing.

"Other people donated money, and we took it and bought things like bottled water, Gatorade, Chapstick and granola bars and took them to the firefighters," said Spiro.

Arrowhead Central CU has 22 branches in the Inland Empire, many of which were in the direct path of the flames, but all survived. Jane Ronnfeldt, vice president of sales and marketing, said the Crestline branch was the last to reopen.

"We used donated backoffice people from other branches to open the Crestline branch for part of the day [Nov. 4]. Members were surprised and happy to see we were open, but then they were worried when they saw different people behind the counter," she said. "We had to explain that their regular staff members were home cleaning out their refrigerators."

ACCU established two funds: a relief fund for its employees, and one that will provide emergency loans to its members. Ronnfeldt said the credit union still is trying to determine how many of its members lost homes. "I think some people are still in shock," she said.

Also in San Diego, USE Credit Union is offering 90-day, interest-free emergency relief loans- up to $5,000-to members whose homes were either destroyed or damaged by the wildfires. Current members may also be eligible to skip loan payments or receive cash from CDs without penalties for early withdrawal. Other types of fire-related assistance may also be made available.

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