Hours after residents were allowed to return to Palm Coast, Fla., which they had evacuated three days before, bank president Gary G. Campbell came on the scene with firsthand knowledge of the hardships he wanted to help the community through.
Just days earlier, the president and chief executive officer of Commercial Bank of Volusia County in Ormond Beach had to leave his own home 15 miles to the south when wildfires came too close for comfort.
"I had my wife, two children, two carloads of valuables, and only $60 in my pocket," Mr. Campbell recalled. "That money goes quick."
More than 2,000 fires have charred drought-stricken Florida since late May, causing an estimated $500 million in damage. Most of the evacuations occurred in central Florida, along the Atlantic Coast. In Flagler County, where Palm Coast is located, 45,000 people were ordered from their homes.
Banks large and small stepped in to play their part in the recovery. The state's two largest banks, First Union Corp. and NationsBank Corp., are offering reduced-rate loans for those with property damage or other problems stemming from the fires.
NationsBank opened four branches on Independence Day. Debra Johnson, market president for the area, said one couple that fled to Orlando with 28 cents between them drove 60 miles on the holiday to cash a check at one of those branches.
Other banks have also extended hours, eased up on loan collections, and, when needed, let their branches serve as meeting places for customers with their insurance agents.
"We can't suddenly get foolish with our lending," said Richard Black, president of Prosperity Bank, St. Augustine. "But we are going to go all out to help our customers."
Commercial Bank of Volusia County, only nine months old, set up a temporary branch in Palm Coast-where it has no customers-to cash checks up to $200, free of charge. Mr. Campbell said he was willing to absorb the "minimal" expense of the facility-he and three other employees in the back of a van.
And in the next town over, Bank at Ormond-by-the-Sea stayed open through a voluntary evacuation of its area.
"A lot of our customers were coming in, putting things in their safety deposit boxes, getting money, and leaving town," said Howard A. Mayo Jr., president.
Many employees of the $100 million-asset bank live on a peninsula shielded from the fires by an inlet. They opened their homes to endangered co-workers on the mainland.
"Usually when we have a disaster around here it's a hurricane, and people on the peninsula rush to the mainland," Mr. Mayo said. "This time it was our turn to lend a helping hand."
To date, no bank building has been damaged, according to the state's Banking Department. But there have been some close calls.
In Orange City children playing with bottle rockets started a small blaze in a wooded lot 300 yards from First Community Bank's headquarters on the afternoon of July 3. Employees first thought the brushfires had spread to their doorstep, and an emergency shutdown of the branch was begun.
"We were all right, but it was enough to scare us good," said Nick Heard, vice president and lending officer of the $107 million-asset bank.
A smoldering windblown palm branch settled in the parking lot of Commercial Bank's office last week. "A couple of feet more and it would have landed right on our wooden roof," Mr. Campbell said.
In addition to aiding fire victims, banks have also promised to help the volunteer firefighters, many of whom have missed paychecks while out battling blazes.
First Community Bank has designated its branches as drop-off centers for firefighter supplies. The bank also has a fund to buy insulated jackets for volunteers.
"We don't keep a record of who among our customers are volunteer firefighters," said Mr. Black of Prosperity Bank. "But some of our tellers know. We are putting out the word that we will go easy on those people too."
Ms. Johnson said a NationsBank teller assisted an out-of-state firefighter who needed to get a check to his home bank to meet the payroll at his business.
A banker in Merritt Island, Michael M. Storey, predicted there will be no rush for loans. The state estimates that only 300 homes and 30 businesses were lost in the 500,000 acres scorched statewide, and most of those properties were insured.
"As far as actual structural damage, I think we have been very lucky," said Mr. Storey, president of Fidelity Bank of Florida.
Fidelity Bank has one borrower whose mobile home was destroyed. A representative of the bank contacted the customer to offer assistance, but the insurance company was already on the scene.
Still, Fidelity will reduce the interest owed, he said, "so they will have some extra money to put their lives back in order."
Beyond that, Mr. Storey said his bank will serve the area best just by remaining open.
"I think the most important thing we can do is keep coming to work- helping this area get back to business as usual," he said.