California Fires Rally Industry

Travel industry pulls together to help victims in wake of devastating fires.

By: Lisa Jennings

As firefighters across Southern California brought dozens of wildfires under control last week, members of the region’s travel industry rallied to help those who lost their homes or businesses.

Fires across four counties destroyed more than 750,000 acres and an estimated 3,400 homes, and killed 20 people in what is being called the state’s worst disaster.

But tourism leaders urged travelers not to avoid Southern California, saying the region is open for business.

“We invite people from across the nation and around the world to visit California in the weeks ahead to enjoy all we have to offer,” said Caroline Beteta, executive director of the California Travel and Tourism Commission. “Your visit will help us rebuild and recover from this terrible disaster.”

Travel agencies throughout the area struggled to stay open to help stranded travelers, as the agents themselves dealt with the evacuation of their own families, and in some cases, the loss of their homes.

Tim Smith, owner of San Diego Travel Group, said one of his agents lost her house, but the 10 retail branches of the operation were spared.

To help the agent whose home was destroyed, Smith sent a letter to vendors asking for a product donation that the agency could sell, with 100 percent of profits going to help the agent.

Brad Anderson, whose family owns Anderson Travel Group, said their seven agency locations around San Diego County were also spared, but the home of one of his agents was destroyed and the agency was working to help meet her immediate needs.

In addition, Anderson planned to e-mail 50,000 customers announcing that, for each booking over the next few weeks, the agency would donate $25 to a relief fund for victims.

Three of the agency’s customers were killed in the fire, a family that planned a cruise on Holland America Line in December. But Anderson said the cruise line agreed to a full refund to reimburse family members.

“It’s hard not to want to help people when they’re facing real problems,” said Anderson. “There isn’t anybody in San Diego that doesn’t know somebody who hasn’t had a devastating loss.”

One of the areas hardest hit was the historic gold mining town of Julian, where an estimated 300 to 400 homes were destroyed, but the charming town center was not touched.

But at least six small bed-and-breakfast inns in the area burned, said Ed Glass, owner of the Butterfield Bed and Breakfast and former head of the local B&B association.

The damaged B&Bs include the Julian White House, Julian Homestead, Artist’s Loft, Random Oaks Ranch, the Rocking Horse Inn, and the Observer’s Inn. The Butterfield was not damaged, said Glass.

For a town like Julian, which relies very heavily on year-round tourist traffic, the fire could have a long-lasting impact. But Glass predicted the town may enjoy a resurgence.

“I think a lot of people who know the area will be back, and those who don’t will come see what it’s about,” said Glass.

The Lake Arrowhead resort area was also largely untouched, though the Cedar Glen area to the east saw major destruction.

Aside from possible smoke damage, Lake Arrowhead Resort survived unscathed, said Wayne Austin, general manager. But the resort is expected to be closed until just before Thanksgiving, in part because the roads leading up to the mountain resort were badly damaged.

Lake Arrowhead residents were evacuated, and, as of Nov. 4, had not been allowed to return home. But the resort served as a command center for police and firefighters.

“Thanksgiving is a big time for us, we typically do about 600 meals, and people have been calling because they’re so worried it will be canceled,” said Austin. “We’re going to really work hard to get out of disaster refugee mode and back to normal.”

Lewis Murray, executive director of the Lake Arrowhead Chamber of Commerce, said the region’s Web site,, has updates.

Both the Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino near Lakeside, and the Harrah’s Rincon Casino and Resort at Valley Center closed for several days because of the poor air quality.

Hoteliers throughout San Diego County saw many guests cancel at the height of the fires, but last week expected business to return to normal levels.

“The only way tourists would see where the fires were is looking out the window of an airplane flying in,” said Bill Evans, managing director of Evans Hotels, owner of three hotels in the region, such as the Lodge at Torrey Pines.

Autumn is typically a low season for San Diego. But Evans said he worried tourists planning spring travel would dismiss the region because of the fires. But just as tourists returned to New York after Sept. 11 to help prop up the city’s economy, tourists need to visit Southern California, said Evans.

”Many hotel employees lost their homes,” said Evans. “If you really want to help these people you have to give them work.”

Across the four counties affected by the fires, hotels also donated free and discounted rooms to displaced families and weary firefighters, as well as food to evacuation centers.

San Diego Concierge, a business that typically finds hotel rooms for convention overflows and tourists, convinced about 40 hotels to donate rooms and found shelter for hundreds of victims.

“It’s overwhelming what the hospitality industry has done,” said Michael Hall, owner of San Diego Concierge.

The LaCosta Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., took in about 45 students and staff members of a girls boarding school destroyed by fire, as well as many evacuated families.

And the Days Inn Hotel Circle near Seaworld started with a donation of about 50 rooms and went up to about 170 at one point, said Barbara Larkin, general manager, who had lost her own home to the fires.

Residents dropped off food and donations and the hotel became “almost a command center,” said Larkin. “It’s amazing how my staff has gone above and beyond.”