When the 2007 Southern California wildfires started, Jeff Shaw and his wife were at the annual Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ Association convention in Las Vegas. Shaw’s business, Desert Air in Palm Springs, Calif., was in no danger. However, the safety of their son, Brian Shaw, was a constant worry throughout the SMACNA conference.

Brian is a computer-aided-drafting designer for his father’s company and occasionally works out of his home in Temecula, Calif., near San Diego. Unlike Desert Air, Brian’s home was directly in the path of wildfires that would eventually burn thousands of acres of land and destroy hundreds of homes and businesses.

Most of the contractors contacted by Snips for this story were fortunate in that their homes were not affected by the fires that burned up thousands of acres in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. But their businesses were another story. If the fires did not personally damage sheet metal shops, they damaged revenue as nearby fires and smoke caused many shops to temporarily close or employees to evacuate the area.

California fire crews worked during the day and throughout the night to contain the wildfires. Photo courtesy of FEMA.

The beginning

The first wildfires broke out Oct. 20. Over the next several days, cable news networks and media outlets broadcast footage of the destruction, which included fires that ravaged the Malibu Hills and destroyed hundreds of homes and caused billions of dollars in damage. This was just the beginning of what would become a monthlong ordeal for California residents.

It was the constant media coverage that prompted Brian Shaw to contact his parents in Las Vegas.

“I didn’t want them freaking out,” he said. “But I didn’t want them to see it on the local Vegas news.”

On Oct. 20, the strong, dry Santa Ana winds were blowing at speeds of 80 mph. Shaw said that this was enough to knock out power at his home in the hills of Temecula. By using a backup generator, he was able to restore the power, which is how he was able to receive the 911 call asking residents in the area to evacuate.

By the afternoon, fires that started in Ramona, Calif., were blazing and on the way toward his home.

Shaw had built his house just over a year ago and was reluctant to leave it behind, mostly because the home’s location would make it difficult for firefighters to protect it. The house was not built with exposed eaves or wood, which would minimize the chance of sparks or embers from hitting the house, he said.

But the home was still in danger, and Shaw and his wife packed their car in case they needed to leave. A family friend also stayed at the home for the next couple of days. The men slept in shifts. While one was asleep, the other was on the roof keeping track of the fire’s path.

“At one point I had three fires burning around us,” Shaw said.

Over the next few days, those fires continued to get closer to the home. The fires reached within two miles of the residence. Shaw believed that if his home were to be taken over by the flames, it would happen Oct. 23.

But it was on that day that the opposite happened. The winds shifted and pushed the fires east.

While Brian and his family were able to breath a little easier, despite the smoky air, others in his area were not as fortunate. He said that a nearby mobile home park with 215 units was “totally destroyed.”

Helicopters were used to drop water and retardant in an effort to stop advancing wildfires. Photo courtesy of FEMA.

Apprehensive

Brian Shaw wasn’t the only one who felt as though the wildfires were just a little too close. While he was worried about his home, some area HVAC and sheet metal company officials were apprehensive about what would happen to their places of business.

Drew Miles, the owner of Tru-Duct in Spring Valley, Calif., said that his company was in the path of a fire that went on to burn over 20,000 acres. He could see the fire burning on the hill behind his company. At one point that fire came within one mile of the building.

Tru-Duct shares a 2,000-square-foot building with six other tenants. Behind the premises is a large gas tank that could have exploded, devastating the property had the fires reached the building.

The worst that Miles had to endure was the loss of one business day. While on the way to work around 3 a.m., Miles found that the California Highway Patrol had stopped people from entering the area near his business. That caused Miles to shut Tru-Duct down for the day.

After the fire changed its course, Tru-Duct was mostly back to business, although some jobs had to be postponed due to the thick smoke still hanging over the area.

This aerial photo shows what is left of a Southern California neighborhood after one of the wildfires. Photo courtesy of FEMA.

Smoke

And it was such residual smoke - and not the fires - that created the most problems for area contractors.

California Sheet Metal in Santee, Calif., located 25 miles outside San Diego, was not affected by the fires, but the smoke was a different story. Some jobs were delayed for a few days while the company waited for the haze to clear.

Smoke infiltrated the company’s sheet metal shop, requiring workers to wear respirators while they performed their tasks.

Atlas Sheet Metal in Irvine, Calif., had the same difficulties. The architectural sheet metal company wasn’t exactly sure how the fires would impact the company. A nearby fire started Oct. 21, and according to Rita Odlum, co-owner of Atlas, Oct. 22 was a wait-and-see day.

Odlum arrived at work by 8:30 a.m. An hour later, fire trucks were pulling into the area and businesses surrounding hers were closing up.

Atlas employees could see the smoke in the distance from the building’s roof. For a moment, the fire came within half a mile of the building.

“It was a little unsettling not knowing what was going on,” she said.

By 10:30 a.m., it was decided that it wasn’t worth keeping the shop open.

“We really didn’t get too much work done anyway,” she said.

But before everyone evacuated, Odlum said that the company collected all of its important files and secured them in plastic tubs.

The next day, the fire had shifted and left the area. But it left behind thick smoke that lingered. The company’s sheet metal shop is housed in a building with large industrial doors that are opened most of the time for better accessibility and productivity.

However, the smell of smoke and the poor air quality prompted the company to shut down its sheet metal shop all day.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.