Red October

Mall owners step in when San Diego burns

As I watched the Southern California wildfire coverage unfold in the national news late in October, I was reminded of another late October when the wildfire experience was much closer to home.

It was 2003, and I was at the office when I received word that my south Denver neighborhood was being evacuated. Fierce winds had fanned a handful of devastating blazes along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains—and those blazes were burning a path right to the Fields’ front door. The next several hours were a panicked blur of locating and securing children, grabbing and packing valuables, calming dogs, and finding shelter.

Refuge was a familiar haven—a Drury Inn & Suites that we’d come to call home a year earlier during our house-hunting excursions to Denver. A call ahead from the car secured us a suite—free of charge, for as long as we needed it, compliments of the hotel manager.

Although our story ended quickly and happily—we returned home late the next day to an untouched home—the recent San Diego-area fires sparked memories of panic and displacement. And they rekindled my deep appreciation for a Denver hotel manager who did everything he could to help hundreds of frightened people and pets.

Mall owners received similar kudos from San Diego-area residents and rescue workers. As tens of thousands of Southern Californians were forced from their homes, developers such as Vestar and Westfield stepped up to the plate.

Phoenix-based Vestar Development Group owns Rancho San Diego Towne Center, a 400,000-sq.-ft. shopping center right in the heat of the action. Evacuated residents gravitated to the center’s parking lot and set up camp, some in RVs, many hauling household pets and salvaged belongings. Although the center wasn’t officially declared a shelter, Vestar let them stay.

Mall owner Westfield Group, which operates seven malls around San Diego, performed similarly for displaced people and animals. When its North County Mall, in Escondido, was closed by mandatory evacuation order, Westfield opened the parking lots to emergency responders for use as a staging area—and to evacuees in their RVs and campers. The American Red Cross and FEMA shared asphalt space with horses and other livestock (see photo in the “News” section on this page).

On Oct. 23, Westfield’s president of U.S. operations Ken Wong announced a $100,000 donation to the American Red Cross of San Diego. And the company arranged for delivery of 5,000 bottles of water to evacuees directed to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. “We are part of this community and will do whatever we can to help,” he said. “We are…working with local law enforcement, public-safety and emergency-service organizations to serve as a resource—providing staging areas for first responders at several of our centers.”

Westfield Plaza Camino Real, in Carlsbad, served as an evacuation center, as well as a staging area for emergency responders including FEMA. Westfield Parkway in El Cajon sheltered hundreds of livestock.

Just like Denver’s Drury Inn, Westfield and Vestar stepped in to offer help without hesitation—an apt prelude to this 2007 season of giving.

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