A view from the American Music & Sound office in Newbury Park as the Hill Fire broke out.

California Fires:
MI Update

Four wildfires erupted throughout California Nov. 8, burning hundreds of thousands of acres of land, displacing communities and causing record-breaking fatalities. Music Inc. spoke to several retailers and suppliers in affected areas for updates on the wildfires' impact, including Allen & Heath, Blue Microphones, D&A Guitar Gear, Guitar Center, Ilio and The Music Connection.

At least 88 people died due to the Camp Fire that sparked in California's Butte County, and the fire destroyed more than 10,300 structures, making it the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state's history. The town of Paradise was one of the hardest hit areas, with much of the town leveled by the Camp Fire. In nearby Chico, The Music Connection owner Sally MacMillan and her family evacuated to safety as the Camp Fire spread, stopping to grab valuable possessions before leaving. MacMillan would later lose her home to the fire.

"I grabbed the family Bible, pictures and documents," MacMillan said. "I called [my husband] Bruce, and he told me which guitars to grab; I wouldn't have room for them all. [I grabbed] the 1958 Martin D18, his 1948 000-18, a couple others. Then I grabbed our 18-month-old daughter, our yellow lab and headed into Chico. At the bottom of our driveway, my neighbor said he wasn't going to evacuate. By approximately 5 that evening, he was dead."

MacMillan said she was able to reach all of The Music Connection's employees and ensure they were safe, but everyone had been impacted by the fire in some way.

"I started a group text with all our employees," MacMillan said. "Everyone was accounted for, but not everyone's parents. One employee went home. Both his parents lost their homes; another's mom lost her home. One employee who lived in South Chico evacuated to his parents' home. Although it was safe to come back to Chico, all the roads were closed. Everyone knew someone affected."

In response to four of its associates losing their homes to the California wildfires, Guitar Center Human Resources created a GoFundMe page for affected employees along with providing financial support.

Guitar Center also partnered with the American Red Cross to assist in the response and recovery process. Between Nov. 14 and Nov. 28, Guitar Center matched total customer donations to the American Red Cross up to $25,000.

Southern California Fires
In California's Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the Woolsey Fire — which claimed three lives and destroyed at least 1,643 buildings — shut down the D&A Guitar Gear office in Thousand Oaks. Although the building was safe from the flames, D&A Guitar Gear team members said they returned to another hazard: the smoke the fire left behind.

"The streets in Thousand Oaks were deserted and the hills all around [were] burnt and black," D&A Guitar Gear personnel said. "The smell of smoke the minute we hit the 101 [freeway] at Las Virgenes was so strong that it hurt to breathe. As we walked through the door at the office, the smell of smoke was very strong as well. The cleaning crew had just left and showed us pictures of all the ashes that came through the doors."

D&A Guitar Gear Founder Ravi Sawhney, a Malibu resident who was spending time in Palm Springs as California counties went up in flames, was able to return to his home, which had made it through the fire — unlike much of the surrounding area.

"We spent the next days watching the news as the fire consumed homes and landscape at will," Sawhney said. "We returned back three days later, unable to venture anywhere close to our home and only seeing and hearing that our home had been saved — what a relief. Ten days after the fire started, we were finally able to be one of the fortunate ones who could return home only to be overtaken by the smell of smoke and the devastation; cars burnt on the roadside, burnt down homes and places where homes once stood, simply missing from the hillscape."

Team members at the virtual instruments distributor Ilio, based in Westlake Village, were also affected by the Woolsey Fire. Owner Shelly Hiskey and President Mark Hiskey lost their home to the fire, and so did a long-time employee. But Shelly Hiskey noted that this isn't the first natural disaster Ilio has made it through.

"We launched Ilio at the 1994 NAMM Show right after the Northridge earthquake, which made our first NAMM experience quite memorable," Shelly Hiskey said. "And now we will be celebrating our 25th anniversary on the heels of this devastating fire. So you might say overcoming challenges is woven into our company's fabric. Although we have suffered a tremendous loss, we have far more to be grateful for. The Ilio team has really stepped up, working tirelessly during an extremely busy holiday season, and making sure the business continues to run smoothly. Despite the personal loss, our business continues to thrive, and we're thankful for that."

Burning through more than 96,000 acres of land, the Woolsey Fire ripped through parts of Agoura Hills, where one of three victims killed by the fire was found. Nick Rail Music's Agoura Hills location announced on Facebook Nov. 12 that the store was reopened after the area was deemed safe. This came after a Nov. 9 Facebook announcement that the location would be closed due to not one but two fires in the area.

Close Calls
The Nurse Fire grew to burn more than 1,500 acres in California's Solano County, but Ventura County had to face off with another set of flames alongside the Woolsey Fire: the Hill Fire, which inched toward the American Music & Sound office office in Newbury Park.

"Luckily we made it out safely with no damage to people or property," said Allen & Heath Marketing Manager Jeff Hawley. "We quickly evacuated the office as the fire came within less than a mile and spread across the US 101 freeway. My home was under mandatory evacuation for a number of days (near the campus of California State University Channel Islands) and one other staff member was also under evacuation in the Topanga Canyon area."

A view from the US 101 freeway as American Music & Sound employees evacuate the area.

Hillary Money, director of public relations for Blue Microphones, said the company and its employees were able to avoid any damage from the fires, even though the flames crept close to the microphone manufacturer's office.

"While the fires scorched the areas around Blue's office (including across the street from our cul-de-sac), the Blue office was not damaged," Money said. "Blue did close their Westlake Village office for a few days until it was safe for employees to travel to the office and until the air cleared. Many Blue employees had to evacuate their homes, but thankfully, no one lost their homes."

Sally MacMillan of The Music Connection in Chico reopened the store Nov. 10, not being able to "bear the thought of staying closed."

"I'm glad we opened. The store was full of people, familiar customers, many in a daze. Folks standing around swapping horror stories of escaping with their lives, checking in on friends. I hugged customers I normally wouldn't think to. So many people," MacMillan said. "The number of homes and lives lost continued to grow throughout the week. The store felt like a safe place that we confused survivors thought to gather for a sense of community. I felt strangely proud of our little store."

MacMillan continued, adding that the harrowing experiences of evacuating the Camp Fire had shown her the positive impact of music instruments and the stores that carry them.

"It's striking. We as music store owners sell more than instruments," MacMillan said. "I guess I always knew that, but here I was seeing it play out. Our instruments aren't just instruments. They are the things we evacuate first." MI

— By Tyra Bosnic