When Leigh Sparks saw the flames screaming down the Rincon Mountains on Friday heading towards her house, that's when she and her husband knew they needed to evacuate. The couple threw a mattress, along with some photos and paintings, into their flatbed truck, and escaped to her art gallery in downtown Carpenteria, where they've been camping out ever since.
Sparks' En Plein Air art gallery is one of the few small businesses in the Southern California town technically still open. But with blankets of ash and air thick and hot with smoke from the Thomas Fire, there aren't any customers. Typically, this would be the time of year the gallery owner would be banking a couple thousand dollars a week. Instead, she hasn't had a sale in days. "By Friday I will have to start going into my pocket to cover bills," says Sparks. "It's going to be really bad if I don't have sales for much longer."
Yet Sparks is one of the lucky ones. Ever since the wildfire started a week and a half ago, it has grown into California's fifth largest fire in the state's history. Propelled by 50 mile-per-hour Santa Ana winds, the fire started in the Santa Paula foothills in a popular hiking destination near Thomas Aquinas College. Quickly, it ripped through the coastal town of Ventura--forcing companies like Patagonia to evacuate its campus--more recently making its way up the coast to Santa Barbara County. According to reports from Cal Fire, there are also five other major wildfires, forcing some 200,000 people from their homes, and incinerating hundreds of buildings as far south as San Diego.
For the past week, many business districts in Southern California have been "ghost towns," says Ray Bowman, the director of the Small Business Development Center in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Most main street-area businesses in towns like Ventura and Ojai--known for its high-end hotels--are still standing, but many had to close due to mandatory evacuation orders, or couldn't open because employees couldn't get to work safely. Bowman says the biggest blow to local mom-and-pop shops in the area is the loss of holiday sales revenue.
At Foothill Plant Nursery, off the San Fernando Freeway in Sylmar, manager Tammy Dipietro-Howell had to close her store for three days during the evacuation, only to discover her plants covered in ash and wilting from lack of water. "We're a nursery and this time of year we sell poinsettias. This is the busiest two weeks of the whole season," says Dipietro-Howell. "Timing-wise it's a disaster for business."
SBDC's Bowman worries that if the fires continue to burn, retailers and manufacturers could lose the last two-week push of the holiday shopping season. "If that happens, then you see companies not making payroll, not being able to make loan payments," he says. "The longer the fires last, the more uncertainty for businesses, and businesses bank on certainty."
Which is why the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County is trying to help small businesses with a stopgap. Bruce Stenslie, CEO of Ventura Country's EDC, is working with the Small Business Administration to put together a "business interruption loan" program to guarantee low-interest loans to help small businesses after missing the holiday rush. Next week, he says, the SBA is coming to Ventura County to bring their disaster assistance team, which can start processing loans on the spot.
"This is a critical time for businesses and many are reliant on a strong fourth quarter to make it," says Stenslie. "Some businesses cannot even afford a soft quarter, let alone two weeks of no sales."