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Western wildfires rage, businesses brace for hit

As wildfires raged through Southern California last week, home textiles suppliers headquartered in the area were saying that the blaze had not singed their business — although many were less certain about the how the impact on retail sales would look once the smoke cleared.

"The affect on [retail] business will be very dramatic, so many are being put out of their homes. The destruction inland is equivalent to the size of the state of Rhode Island," said Richard Gould, vp, national sales manager, Long Beach, CA-based Foreston Trends.

"We haven't seen the effects on business as yet," he told HTT at mid-week. "I think next week when [retailers'] numbers are reported, we will have some idea."

Acknowledging that the fires "can't be helping retail sales at all," Brentwood Originals president Loren Sweet said he believes that the national rebound in sales should be strong enough to absorb the regional losses.

"I doubt that the dampening effect of the local fires is impacting the bigger picture. Business has been flooding in for the past two months. I think everyone is trying to catch up," he said.

Brentwood's operations in Carson, CA, were uninterrupted, although "we have ashes all over the place, and air quality — which in never great — is terrible."

Many home textiles firms in the area said they were doing their best to work around the problems caused by the outbreak.

At CS International — the Los Angeles-based parent of Cecil Saydah Company, Louisville Saydah, Design Network and Matrix — although the fires did not impact business from a distribution or manufacturing perspective, some of its commuter employees were affected, president Harold Schierholt told HTT.

"Fewer than 15 people have been affected from the perspective of having to take time off. From the group, it is evenly spread between administrative and manufacturing/distribution."

Some were away from work because they'd been evacuated from their homes. Others took time off to help family members who had been ordered to do so. "I guess the fires are a grim reminder that there are some very evil people around — arsonists — and that we need to keep our priorities straight, the health and welfare of family and friends," Schierholt added.

Some of the fires last week were also burning uncomfortably close to Venus Home Fashions' headquarters in distribution center in Foothill Ranch, CA. The area was "ringed around by the fires, the closest being only 15 or 20 miles to the south," said executive vp Vivie von Walstrom.

With the billowing clouds of smoke visible from its offices and the smell of burning timber wafting through the area, employees were being cautious about avoiding outdoor exercise and wearing masks.

"Ash in the air," she added. "But we feel that there is no immediate threat to our staff or our facilities."

Van Nuys, CA, headquarters of Veratex, was not far from the fires, "but thank goodness we have not had any of our employees affected," said Dale Talbert, vp. "I can see the smoke billowing and almost see fire from our offices," he said last week. "You could be 15 or 20 miles away and still see all of this."

Newport/Layton Home Fashions' Belinda Ballash is based in the Highlands area of the Pacific Palisades, which was in a designated potential fire area. "So far we have been very fortunate," said Ballash, executive vp, fashion director. "We were evacuated in the big fire in September 1993, but the fire only came over the hill and did not destroy any houses.

Although Arrow Industries in Anaheim, CA, dodged the flames "all kinds of ash and soot have been raining down on us," said Rich Sperber, vp, sales and marketing. "It's amazing, like we're going through a war zone."

Sperber noted that the wildfire had made its way into an area called Porter Ranch that is home to a large Wal-Mart store and was headed precariously close to Stevenson Ranch, a middle- to upper-income conclave that houses several major retail stores. "The fire could also be affecting truckers trying to get out [to make deliveries]," he added. "Many roads are closed."

Trendex Home Designs' Lorraine Ragland Maberry, who is based in Orange, CA, was among the thousands of business travelers whose flights were diverted because of the Oct. 26 airport closures in Southern California.

"I was supposed to get home at 10:30 a.m. but landed at 7:30 p.m.," said Maberry, vp, sales and merchandising. "It was a long day."

Anna's Linens, based in Costa Mesa, CA, was briefly forced to close one of its mall-based San Diego stores — for two hours on Oct. 26 — "which was no big deal," Carie Gladstone Doll, vp, merchandise, said. "Thank goodness that was the worst of it. None of our employees have suffered any damages."

By mid-week all of its stores in the region were operating on a regular schedule, she added.

With six department stores in Los Angels and nine in the San Diego market proximate to areas affected by the blazes, Plano, TX-based JCPenney made a $30,000 donation to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund — $25,000 to the American Red Cross San Diego/Imperial County and $5,000 to the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles. JCPenney stores continued to remain open, and the company was accepting American Red Cross emergency vouchers.

Mooresville, NC-based Lowe's recently responded to the crisis by freezing prices at 19 of its stores in the region, assuring customers in the San Bernardino Valley that prices would not increase on emergency items like shovels, hoses and buckets necessary for protecting their homes and property from the wildfires.

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