Calif. Banks Move to Help Fire Victims

SAN FRANCISCO - California banks and thrifts are stepping forward with charitable donations and emergency services to aid victims of Sunday's devastating hillside fire in Oakland and Berkeley.

All the state's major banks and many local institutions are offering special benefits similar to those provided in the wake of other natural disasters. These include payment deferrals on outstanding loans and new credit to help people rebuild.

"The fire caused a broader and bigger problem than the [Loma Prieta]

earthquake" of 1989, said Daniel R. Eitingon, executive vice president of First Interstate Bank of California. He oversees the bank's Northern California division.

Raging Inferno

"Anybody who watched television had to be affected," Mr. Eitingon said.

Fueled by high temperatures and dry winds, the blaze raged out of control Sunday afternoon and evening, charring whole neighborhoods in the tree-shaded hills on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

Officials estimate that 14 people died and more than 1,000 houses and apartment buildings burned in an area of expensive, custom-built homes, many featuring panoramic views of San Francisco.

Tears Among the Ruins

Area residents have been shaken by images of victims weeping over the smoldering ruins of their homes and landscapes stripped of everything but rows of chimneys. Property damage is estimated at $1.5 billion.

Banks and thrifts are offering special repayment terms to customers affected by the fire. In addition, all the state's large banks are waiving early withdrawal penalties on term deposits. The First Interstate Bancorp unit is allowing a 90-day payment deferral on all loans to affected borrowers.

A Break on Mortgage Payments

Union Bank and First Nationwide Financial Corp.'s First Nationwide Bank, both of San Francisco, are letting displaced mortgage customers suspend payment until the end of the year. Citicorp's Citibank FSB, which is headquartered in Oakland, has set up a special group to work out new payment schedules for affected mortgage customers.

Local institutions are also trying to accommodate customers.

Outreach to Victims

"We're contacting each client of the bank, dealing with them on a case-by-case basis," said Claude B. Hutchison Jr., chairman and chief executive of Oakland-based Civic Bank of Commerce, which has $378 million in assets. He said the bank has about 100 customers who lived in the burned-out area.

Institutions are also offering to extend credit on concessionary terms to fire victims.

Wells Fargo Bank is offering personal loans up to $25,000 customers to its customers who owned homes, for as long as six months at the bank's six-month certificate-of-deposit rate, currently 4.84%. Customers who rent are eligible for similar loans up to $5,000.

Special Loan Assistance

Security Pacific National Bank and BankAmerica Corp.'s Bank of America will provide special loan help to non-customers affected by the fire.

Security Pacific is offering 90-day, no-fee personal unsecured loans up to $20,000 at 9% interest to those who meet eligibility requirements. If secured by real estate, the bank will loan up to $100,000 at 6% interest.

Meanwhile, Bank of America, Security Pacific, Wells Fargo, First Interstate, Union Bank, First Nationwide and American Savings Bank, Irvine, Calif., have all announced donations to groups providing relief for fire victims.

Separately, several banks said the fire disrupted operations. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Sanwa Bank of California closed branches inside the fire zone. But the facilities were not severely damaged and are being reopened as traffic is allowed back in the area.

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