The wildfires in Northern California destroyed an estimated 19,000 buildings and was finally 100 percent contained after more than three weeks of burning.

While a thick haze was hanging over ThirdLove's headquarters in San Francisco during that time, it was nothing compared to what our teammates in Chico have been dealing with. Eleven members of our customer support team had homes destroyed in the fire. Some had come into work the day it started, and they weren't able to go back and save anything.

Clothes, toys, furniture, bedding, photo albums--everything is gone.

It's been devastating for the community and for some of our teammates, and it made me think about how to react as a company when something shocking like this happens.

How do you respond to make sure people are okay?

The most important thing is to give your team flexibility as soon as possible.

We had no emergency plan in place when the fire started. I would love to tell you we did, but it just wasn't something we'd seriously considered beforehand.

Once we realized how dangerous the fire was on Thursday, we moved quickly. We shut down the Chico office that afternoon. On Friday, our head of customer experience sent a note to the entire team in Chico letting them know there would be a few changes.

First, we told anyone they could work from home if they needed to. With so many schools closed, we didn't want anyone to have to choose between watching their children and working. We also let anyone who needed time off to run negative PTO.

One week after the fire began, 70 percent of the team was back in the office, 20 percent were working from home, and 10 percent were still offline. We just wanted our team to know they could take a few days off and still have a job.

Communicate and understand the actual needs of your team.

As a founder, you can't be everywhere at once.

When you have a satellite office, you're very empathetic to what's going on there, but it can be difficult to understand the specifics of an emergency situation. That's why you have to find out what's going on as quickly as possible.

Call the affected team, get the information you need, and prioritize help. Talk to people who have actually been affected. Figure out what their concerns are and get visibility into what they need. Once you have all that information, act quickly.

We realized that some of our team members in Chico were worried about taking time off. They were worried about having a job when they came back. For us, it was simple enough to reassure them they would have a job, and to give them the flexibility they needed to work from home or use PTO.

Amid the chaos, it's crucial to set up clear lines of communication so you can easily understand those needs when a disaster happens.

Help the rest of your team support those affected.

Eleven of our teammates have to completely rebuild their lives.

To help out, we immediately started a GoFundMe campaign to begin collecting donations and shared it on our company social channels. Shortly after, we packed up a U-Haul full of donated goods to distribute to the teammates who lost their homes. And our team in the San Francisco office offered extra rooms as places for our displaced team members to stay.

While we wanted to do everything we could for our teammates, an entire community was also devastated.

So, we began using our Chico office as a place where people who lost homes in the fire could come to pick up supplies. Of course, we're donating bras and underwear, but we're also acting as a place where people can come to get all the other items they need for daily life. Diapers, children's clothes, detergent, feminine hygiene products, toiletries, toys, blankets, pillows--all the things that people have completely lost.

In any emergency situation, if you're reasonably well-known in the community, you have an obligation to step up and make the most of your position.

The truth is, you're not going to be able to replace someone's home, photo albums, or mementos. But you can support them by being attentive to their needs and helping out wherever you and your team can make an impact.

Published on: Dec 11, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.