By  on October 25, 2007

Ferocious winds that stoked wildfires in Southern California weakened Wednesday, generating hope that a semblance of normal commerce would return after at least $1 billion in damages and the evacuation of almost 1 million people.

Although some stores remained closed, especially in the hardest-hit areas of San Diego County, retailers and manufacturers began to return to work and assess losses on the fourth day of the fire outbreak. Government officials and economic analysts warned the immediate costs of the fires could rise, but were upbeat about the long-term economic outlook.

"Even though we are losing valuable assets, people will want to replace them," said Tom Larson, an economics professor at California State University, Los Angeles. "As they replace them, that will stimulate sales. In the San Diego area, that might mean people are buying clothes and routine things."

At least a dozen fires scorched 666 square miles and destroyed more than 3,400 homes and businesses. Almost 9,000 firefighters continued to battle blazes in the San Diego area, but forecasters were optimistic that the blustery, hot Santa Ana winds would calm and increased humidity would ease bone-dry conditions.

President Bush, who plans to visit the area today, declared the seven-county region a major disaster, which makes grants and low-cost loans available to victims.

Ken Wong, president of U.S. operations at shopping center owner The Westfield Group, said business recovered well after previous fires in San Diego. He toured three of Westfield's seven shopping centers in the area Wednesday morning, all of which had opened by late afternoon.

"The fundamentals for San Diego continue to be very, very positive," Wong said. "This will not change anyone's view of the area. People are very resilient, and San Diego has been extremely well-organized and coordinated in their response to the crisis. The area is going to more than bounce back."

David Keating, director of corporate communications at General Growth Properties, said the Chula Vista Center was open and the Otay Ranch Town Center was reopening. Simon Property Group's three malls near San Diego were open, as were Nordstrom's four units. Wal-Mart shut one store, but that unit was up and running again Wednesday.Sunglass retailer Solstice reported three of its Southern California stores stayed closed Wednesday. Jan Michel, vice president of stores in the region, said traffic at the malls was slow, and there wasn't any reason for managers to stay. Asked about the losses, she said, "It is going to be a volume. Can you make up that volume? Probably not....But the good news is that it is only three days, and it is not the entire California market."

Karin Toranto, marketing director at San Diego-based Charlotte Russe, made sure all of the employees were safe. "The offices are fine, and I believe all the stores are fine," she said. "I just looked at business for the last few days, and it was really good. If some stores were closed, fortunately the chain as a whole picked up."

Some San Diego-area shopping centers and stores benefited from their location outside of the fires' paths. Megan Capizzi, marketing coordinator at Seaport Village on San Diego's waterfront, said tourists flocked to the more than 70 stores because they had nowhere else to go. "We bused people in from a cruise ship, so we had pretty good traffic," she said.

Apparel manufacturing in San Diego is heavily concentrated in the action sports sector. One of the largest action sports companies in the area, Reef, which has more than 100 employees in its Carlsbad, Calif., offices, was closed Wednesday, but said it would open today. Most companies started to operate on a limited basis Wednesday.

Kevin Flanagan, Reef's vice president of marketing, who was evacuated from his house in Rancho Santa Fe within two miles of the fire, said he didn't anticipate the office closure would hurt sales because the company's distribution center is in Australia.

Kristy Kelly, marketing and promotions coordinator at JetPilot, said she drove by several other action sports companies, including No Fear and Planet Earth, on her way to JetPilot's offices in Vista and noticed that activity was rebounding. "It seemed like everyone is back," she said. "Other than manpower, we [JetPilot] didn't lose our building and with our warehouse being up in Torrance, we didn't lose materials."In Malibu, where the fire that charred 4,500 acres was 90 percent contained on Wednesday, a degree of normalcy returned. Cars were able to drive on Pacific Coast Highway and the Malibu Country Mart, home to James Perse, Planet Blue and Chrome Hearts, reopened after being shut since Sunday. Members of the fashion and beauty industries, including BabaKul designer Kym Gold-Lubell, John Paul Mitchell Systems co-founder John Paul DeJoria and Seven For All Mankind co-founder Peter Koral, were safely in their homes.

Unresolved was whether shoppers would return in force to Malibu-area stores. Samantha Savoia, store manager at Chrome Hearts, said, "People could be wanting to spend money, but I have a feeling that is not going to be the case. There is so much destruction, so I think people's priorities are to get their households together first and foremost."

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