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Recent fires in California bring out the best in casinos

Ernest Hemingway called it “grace under pressure.” Whatever you call it, during a crisis you discover what you are made of and how you respond in an emergency.

San Diego’s casinos found out what they were made of during the devastating fires of October, which caused the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history.

At their height, seven separate fires were burning in San Diego. The one that affected San Diego casinos the most was the last one to start, the Poomacha fire, which started in high winds early on the morning of October 23 and spread over 25,000 acres in its first five hours.

The first of the fires started in Witch Creek, near Santa Ysabel, and was dubbed the Witchfire. Its first victim was the town of Ramona, which the fire ravaged in the early hours of October 22.

Nearby Barona Valley Ranch & Casino on the Barona reservation was spared damage from that fire, although it came within half a mile.

“Our damage was primarily wind, smoke and air quality,” said General Manager Karol Schoen. “One of our biggest stumbling blocks was Wildcat Canyon Road being opened and closed repeatedly.”

Sunday night, things became tense. Under the direction of the fire chief, California Highway Patrol and the Sheriff’s Department, Barona slowly evacuated so as not to clog the winding Wildcat Canyon Road.

“We reached a point where they said do not let anyone go,” Schoen recalls. The property was considered very safe since it has a golf course, which acts as a fire break and bristles with firefighting equipment.  They closed on Monday and didn’t reopen until Saturday morning.

“We had people coming from Ramona and the San Diego Country Estates who couldn’t get anywhere else,” said Schoen.

They also had stranded guests from Los Angeles and Orange County. They kept them on the property and also became a haven for firefighters, CHP and deputies, feeding hundreds of first responders during the week.

Eighteen staff members lost homes. Staffers opened their hearts and collected over $25,000 for victims, a number matched by the tribe. The casino also paid its staff for the week it was closed.

“The generosity of the tribe caring for the staff was just tremendous,” said Schoen.

Casino Pauma, housed in large metal-framed tents, was evacuated and closed for a week as flames burned in the hills above it. Flames crawled through the Agua Tibia Wilderness, which has thousands of acres of gnarled, thick brush.

Pechanga Resort & Casino is near the border of Riverside and San Diego counties. It wasn’t affected by the fires, but it came through for many people.

Doris Beresford of the La Jolla Reservation, which was 83 percent burned, reported her reception at Pechanga when her family fled there.

“The Pechanga Tribal Council met us with open arms at their casino,” Beresford said. “They gathered us into their Grand Ball Room. There were hundreds-Indians from La Jolla, Pauma, Pala, Rincon, Santa Ysabel, Mesa Grande, San Pasqual and Los Coyotes. By the evening of Tuesday, October 23, Pechanga had arranged 50 hotel rooms for La Jolla’s elders and moms with young children… The following days Pechanga had arranged a total of 100 rooms for tribal members from different reservations who could not return home due to fire and smoke.”

It eventually provided 200 rooms at no cost to displaced families and firefighters. 

Trays of full-course meals, including desserts, were delivered every few hours.

The tribe brought medical technicians and health care onsite to help evacuees with medical conditions.

They delivered cases of drinks, snacks and salads to a nearby Red Cross shelter at Temecula Valley High School.

Later, the Pechanga Tribe voted to donate $100,000 to support fire relief.

Similar stories were told of Pala Casino, just a few miles away, which also opened its doors to evacuees.

The Poomacha fire spread onto the Rincon reservation. As the sun rose Tuesday, October 23, Harrah’s Casino was an oasis with fire on three sides.

It scorched 7,000 acres on the Rincon and La Jolla reservations. Rincon lost about 60 homes, including many older buildings and the village Catholic church.

By dawn the casino had closed as a gambling facility, and was operating as an impromptu evacuation center for nearly 400 people, many of them tribal members, but others stranded community members.

In once instance, a migrant family stayed in their car in the parking lot, afraid to go inside until employees knocked on their car door and invited them in.

Viejas Casino, a few miles from Barona and also not threatened by flames, offered firefighters a place to rest and eat at its recreation hall and buffet.

The small Golden Acorn along Interstate 8, a casino and truck stop which has no accommodations or buffet, provided diesel fuel to firefighters.

At Valley View Casino in Valley Center, Joe Navarro, head of the business committee that runs the casino, oversaw efforts that kept the fire from entering the complex and also saved a neighboring house. The reservation’s fire department was deployed elsewhere throughout the area doing structure protection.

Navarro, a former police officer, was fortunate that the skeleton crew remaining included a former firefighter and an active volunteer. “We knew the prevailing winds would bring it to us eventually, so we were prepared,” he said. The director of reservation services, buffet manager, transportation manager, slot operations manager and valet manager worked together to keep the fire at bay.

They had placed hoses in strategic locations and were able to save their human resources and construction trailers. Once the firestorm passed, facilities and security staff battled hot spots all night long.

The casino provided meals and a place for firefighters, law enforcement and military to rest and eat. The buffet’s head chef worked for several days straight cooking steaks and other food for first responders.

According to Navarro, “We fed folks on a 24-hour basis and served over 3,000 meals to emergency services personnel in our team member dining room.”

On the Friday after the fire passed through Valley Center, Valley View offered a free meal for any local person who would contribute $5 to fire relief. Local residents mixed with National Guard, deputies and many firefighters. Many people walked over to offer thanks for helping them in their hour of need. Over three days, Valley View raised $60,000 for fire survivors.  For many of the casinos in San Diego, it was their finest hour.

David Ross is a regular contributor to Global Gaming Business and editor of the weekly newspaper, the Roadrunner, in Valley Center, California. Ross was evacuated from his home in the middle of the night and spent nearly a week in his office, keeping town residents apprised of the situation via an online blog.

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