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A steady rain of ash and yellowed, smoky skies made David Geerdes more than a little uneasy as he commuted to his job Monday at Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe’s San Diego office. “It’s like after a nuclear disaster,” Geerdes said. “You walk out, and your car is coated with ash. The ground, everything is covered in ash.” Fires raging out of control in Southern California on Monday closed airports, government offices — including some courts — and many businesses. For lawyers, the biggest problems appear to have been in San Diego. Downtown San Diego was practically deserted after Mayor Dick Murphy asked businesses to shut down because of toxins in the air and to keep roads clear for emergency vehicles. Geerdes was one of a handful of lawyers to show up for work Monday. As managing partner of Heller’s San Diego office, Geerdes wanted to get into the office to check on the firm’s computer networks and take care of any emergencies. San Diego’s largest hometown firm, Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, kept a skeleton crew of computer technicians and security staff on the job. But everyone else was told to stay home. “There were so many alerts down there, where people said, ‘Don’t drive, stay indoors because of the smoke,’” said Michael Isaacs, a San Francisco-based Luce, Forward partner. “Because of all those concerns we just had people stay home.” As of Monday afternoon, the fires had blackened some 400,000 acres and had killed 13 people. Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes as fire licked subdivisions in San Diego and nearby communities. The disaster in San Diego prompted California Chief Justice Ronald George to issue an order allowing courts there to hold sessions anywhere in the county, to declare Oct. 27 and 28 holidays for the purposes of computing time for court filings and to extend deadlines for preliminary examinations, juvenile proceedings and felony charging and trials. Firms like Heller, Cooley Godward and Latham & Watkins closed their San Diego offices. Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, which has two offices in San Diego, told its employees they could report for work if their homes and travel routes were safe. The firms got the word out with voicemail messages and e-mail alerts and by recording messages on internal information phone lines. Geerdes said the firm first made the call Sunday evening to give employees the option to stay home. But as government safety officials evacuated more neighborhoods in San Diego and Ventura counties overnight and early Monday, the firm shifted its stance and closed the office for business, Geerdes said. For many people, however, going to work wasn’t an option. Dozens of lawyers and law firm support staff were among the hundreds of people evacuated, firm managers said. Stephen Balcomb, Heller’s director of administration in San Diego, said he knew of a handful of lawyers and staff members who lived in Scripps Ranch, an upscale housing development in San Diego where 150 homes were destroyed Sunday. “The only information I have is that one lawyer’s house is still standing but the one next to it is not,” Balcomb said from his San Diego home Monday. There, he was keeping an eye on the news and the fires that blazed just miles from his house. “We have fires all around us and we don’t seem to be in immediate danger,” Balcomb said, “but we’re packed and ready to go.” The office closures didn’t stop many lawyers from working either from home or from venturing into their offices if their homes weren’t in jeopardy. J. Terence O’Malley, Gray Cary’s chairman, said about one-third of the firm’s employees came to work Monday. Many of the people who showed up were scrambling to prepare for a trial in Los Angeles due to start this week or were trying to complete deals that were moving forward despite the disaster, O’Malley said. Frederick Muto, managing partner of Cooley’s San Diego office, was in client meetings through most of Monday but he planned to call it quits early. “Client needs aren’t going to go away so you might as well keep at it,” Muto said. “The thing we’ve tried to emphasize to everyone is their family comes first.” The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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