California Burning

What started out as an unfortunate but typical wave of Santa Ana wind-whipped brush fires October 21st instead exploded across Southern California, creating destruction, mass evacuations and makeshift shelters, including one at Qualcomm Stadium.

Early estimates were that up to 1 million residents were evacuated from their homes, and damage could total $1 billion from more than a dozen separate fires burning across seven counties from northern Los Angeles County to the Mexican border.

Dry Santa Ana winds were clocked gusting at close to 100 mph through some mountain canyons around Los Angeles. Grass fires became major conflagrations starting in the coastal haven of Malibu October 21st.

Many of the fires, particularly those in Orange and San Diego counties, sent thousands of families scurrying for refuge.

San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, home of the NFL’s Chargers, was converted into an evacuation center for thousands of displaced residents from across the region. The 70,500-seat stadium and its parking lots were opened for those seeking temporary shelter or a place to pitch a tent while they rode out the firestorms.

Qualcomm does not mirror the nightmarish conditions of the Louisiana Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. SoCal residents and emergency officials are highly prepared for the annual fires, and evacuees at Qualcomm were offered everything from baby wipes to massages.

Cajundome GM Greg Davis knows all about the rigors of mega-shelter operations, having housed thousands of people two years ago. The Lafayette, La., arena housed evacuees for more than a month in the aftermath of Katrina.

Since then, Davis worked with the International Association of Assembly Managers to develop a guidebook of best practices for venue personnel who find themselves in such a position.

He believes that the lessons of Katrina were heeded by San Diego officials, evidenced by the smooth emergency operation unfolding at Qualcomm Stadium.

"IAAM did complete its best practices mega-shelter manual," Davis told Pollstar. "It was released a little over a year ago and widely publicized. Notices were sent to facility managers all over the country so there’s a very good possibility that the people at the stadium there had an opportunity to look at that and include some of those suggestions and best practices in their guidelines."

IAAM President Steve Peters offered support to those affected by the wildfires in an October 23rd letter and offered a copy of the best practices manual to facilities impacted by fires.

Qualcomm Stadium is owned and operated by the City of San Diego. Venue GM Erik Stover was understandably not available for comment by press time, but local media accounts of the city’s efforts were nothing short of glowing.

"There was a banh mi picnic in the parking lot, beef empanadas on the chow line, Caesar salads, cartons of fresh Starbucks House Blend, free magazines, toys for the kids, cots for Grandma, pizza by the slice or, if you wished, the box. There was a man playing jazz guitar, a blues band, massages and acupuncture," the Los Angeles Times reported.

Harrah’s Rincon Casino, in the northern part of San Diego County, was also open as a shelter, if closed to gamblers. Harrah’s spokesman Alberto Lopez told Pollstar he didn’t know how long the property would be used for shelter or closed for business.

"They’re in the same boat as their neighbors in terms of relief and recovery," Lopez said.

In addition to Harrah’s Rincon, other casino resorts in the region closed by fire include Viejas Casino and Pala Casino. Concert postponements included Velvet Revolver / Alice In Chains at Viejas and The Wallflowers at both Viejas and Pala resorts.

House of Blues San Diego was another victim of closure during the emergency. A spokesman in Live Nation’s Southern California region did not return calls about when the club might reopen.

Numerous venues from Los Angeles to the Mexican border were affected by the wildfires, including the Belly Up Tavern in Solano Beach; and SOMA, The Casbah, 4th & B, and Cox Arena in San Diego.