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Evacuating 4,000 Residents And Spooked By PG&E: How CRE Is Doing Business In The Fire Disaster Zone

As Sonoma County's Kincade Fire rages on for at least another eight days, more than 90,000 structures are considered threatened, according to Cal Fire, with 206 structures destroyed by the blaze as of Wednesday morning.

Earlier in the week, Windsor Redwoods, an apartment complex owned by affordable housing developer Burbank Housing, was nearly one of them, CEO Lawrance Florin said. 

That property, one of the 26 in Burbank's portfolio that were evacuated, sits just a few hundred yards away from where firefighters fought back flames near Windsor's East Shiloh and Faught roads late Sunday night.

The community was affected during the sweeping Wine Country fires in 2017, and this time, it was ready. Evacuations, which had begun about 36 hours prior for residents of Windsor, Healdsburg and other towns along Highway 101, occurred much more seamlessly than they did during the Tubbs Fire two years ago, Florin said.

A Santa Rosa restaurant burns during the 2017 Tubbs Fire

Burbank's team of resident managers for each property and regional managers followed the company's new emergency response plan, which it crafted following 2017. Much of it involved those managers going door to door. 

"What I head from our regional managers was that, as opposed to 2017, most of our residents heeded the warning this time and did evacuate, which was definitely different from the last time," Florin said. 

In all, he says Burbank helped evacuate its 1,400 or 1,500 units of housing affected, which translates to an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people.

A landlord at least notifying tenants of evacuation orders is likely an owner's legal obligation, especially if they somehow know their tenants are unaware of the situation, according to Allen Matkins attorney Alan Hearty and DLA Piper attorney Karen Hallock. 

"It probably goes to the landlord's duty to the people in its building to advise them of any potential dangers," Hearty told Bisnow. "If there's a known danger to a tenant in a building and the landlord is aware of that danger and doesn't do anything to act upon it, then the landlord in that instance can be held liable."

Neither lawyer could immediately point to any specific cases or laws mandating the landlord's responsibility.

Up the 101 in nearby Healdsburg, firefighters even used one of Burbank's 70 total properties to their advantage, with Canyon Run Apartments utilized as a firebreak, according to Florin. 

"It has a large backyard, and the fire department was staged there and using it to fight off the fire," he said. 

In Santa Rosa, where hundreds of thousands faced evacuation orders starting Sunday morning, residents of Sonoma County's population hub feared a repeat of the Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and resulted in an estimated $1.2B in economic damages. 

By Wednesday morning, it seems the perimeter around Santa Rosa had held, meaning damage to the city from Kincade's spread might be limited to the sustained heavy winds it was lashed by earlier in the week.

D'Argenzio Properties, a longtime Santa Rosa landlord, saw only slight wind damage and debris strewn around its commercial properties by Tuesday, owner Raymond D'Argenzio said. Since 2017, the building owner has intensified some measures, like more frequently cutting vegetation around buildings.

But business in the area has suffered, especially retail.

"Overall, it's a very favorable area, but it does put a little bit of a damper on people's outlook for the area," he said. "It's affecting tourism and the wine industry."

D'Argenzio says ongoing measures like expanding which residential and commercial buildings require fire sprinklers are important but that threats to the area — from fires to PG&E's new blunt fire-prevention measures of power shut-offs — are still palpable.

"People are concerned about the PG&E shut-offs," he said. "Everything is kind of at a standstill."

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