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With Raging Wildfires and COVID Taking Aim at Their Businesses, California Retailers Look to Be ‘Pillar of Strength’ For Local Communities

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes on the West Coast as wildfires continue to ravage California, Oregon and Washington.

Retailers and brands with stores, distribution centers and offices in the region, as well as employees and their homes, are among those affected by the widespread blazes, which federal officials said was caused by triple-digit temperatures, dry offshore winds and thunderstorms over the Labor Day weekend.

“We do know many families that have lost homes,” said Adam Beck, CEO of Beck’s Shoes, a family-owned and -operated footwear retailer headquartered about seven miles southwest of San Jose, Calif., which is currently engulfed in smoke. “Sales have slowed down again, but we continue to connect with our local communities to be a pillar of strength. Unfortunately, we have another couple months of fire danger unless rains come early.”

In the meantime, the executive chief added that the company is assisting in relief efforts by providing shoes, socks and insoles to those in need. Other businesses have also engaged in similar philanthropic moves: Today, designer John Elliott announced that his namesake brand would donate all proceeds of its made-in-Los Angeles “Fire Relief” T-shirts to CAL FIRE Strike teams in California as well as the nonprofit California Fire Fund.

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“When I reached out to a lifelong friend, who’s the captain of a strike team, we identified some ways to help,” Elliott said in a statement. “Through my conversation, I was incredibly inspired. Strike Teams, like the one he’s currently leading at the border of California and Oregon, are our first line of defense. The heroes that comprise them are actively risking their lives and spending unimaginable time away from loved ones to protect and extinguish these fires.”

Meanwhile, a couple footwear companies with locations across the states have reported that, while they’re keeping a close eye on weather developments, no staffers, associates or employees that they’re aware of have been directly impacted by the flames.

“It’s all so unnerving,” said Megan Papay, co-founder and designer at Freda Salvador. “[I] feel fortunate to share that no one on our team has been directly affected. It is hard to ignore the air quality and scary dark sky, but our heads are down and we are staying positive and focused on things and people that inspire us.”

The brand has two locations in California — one on Fillmore Street in San Francisco and another on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. Papay added that the brand would continue with a scheduled launch tomorrow on the Freda Forum marketplace, while its fall collection is still scheduled for release next week.

Similarly, Birkenstock Americas CEO David Kahan told FN, “All are safe at this time.” The shoemaker’s United States headquarters is based in Novato, Calif., which is currently foggy and seeing orange skies. (Temperatures in the city, however, reached Death Valley-levels of up to 114 degrees on Monday.)

At Nike, whose campus is located in the city of Beaverton, Ore., which is not currently in the evacuation zone, sources told FN that employees were safe and accounted for. They were encouraged to spend time helping out individuals who have been affected by the blazes, and the sportswear giant also offered to match funds donated by its workers.

According to data from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the fires — termed the August Complex wildfire — have spread across about 840,000 acres, making it the largest California wildfire in modern history. They were said to have originated as 38 separate fires, a result of lightning strikes from Tropical Storm Fausto on Aug. 16 and 17.

On Aug. 21, Sole Desire Shoes president David Astobiza wrote to FN that the company’s location in Northern California was on the state’s watch list for evacuation.

“I can tell you from experience that fires really affect business,” he said. “Evacuations place so many people in chaos, and it’s absolutely brutal for the communities … and now with COVID-19, it makes it so much tougher staying in an evacuation camp or with friends or family.”

He added, “Honestly, we are living a nightmare in California. I’m mostly in shock and can’t believe it keeps happening. We just have to keep pushing everyday and do our best.”

—With contributions from Jennie Bell and Barbara Schneider-Levy. This story has been updated with developments at Nike.

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