A mass shooting, then wildfires alter daily reality for agents in California

Earlier this month, the Woolsey fire lit up the night along the Venice Beach coastline.
Earlier this month, the Woolsey fire lit up the night along the Venice Beach coastline. Photo Credit: Max Dunlap/Shutterstock

On Friday, Nov. 9, Susan Reder, owner of Frosch Classic Cruise and Travel in Woodland Hills, Calif., was awakened by the sounds of sirens as police cars drove down her Westlake Village street at 3:30 a.m.

She knew what it meant: Get out. Wildfires are on the way.

Reder and her husband jumped into their car to head to her sister's home in Santa Monica.

"Luckily, the freeway hadn't closed yet," she said last week as she recounted the harrowing experience. "I think it closed an hour after we left. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to get there, because everything was closed off."

Reder has since returned to her home, which she said, thankfully, was undamaged. But her story mirrors what has become a daily reality for Los Angeles County and Butte County residents: uncertainty in the face of deadly wildfires.

The fires came close on the heels of another tragedy for Los Angeles County. The day before they began, a gunman killed 12 people in a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill, a popular Thousand Oaks, Calif., venue for country music and line dancing.

Heidi Creed, vice president of sales, marketing and client relations at Town & Country Travel in Thousand Oaks, just a mile north of the Borderline, bemoaned the timing of the two tragedies.

"We live in a city that has been consistently ranked among the safest in the country," she said, "where neighbors actually know each other, and where you can't go to the grocery store without running into someone you know. So to have something like that happen here is gut-wrenching. The greatest tragedy in all of this is that the friends and families of the victims didn't have their chance to grieve. Many were forced straight into evacuation."

The Camp Fire in Butte County has burned about 150,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles County has burned more than 98,000 acres. Several smaller fires (under 5,000 acres) were largely contained in Ventura and Solano counties.

The California Travel & Tourism Commission said that the "vast majority" of the state was unaffected by the wildfires, but it directed visitors to www.calfire.ca.gov for the latest updates.

Travel agencies last week were still in the process of finding out which of their clients had been affected by the fires and dealing with issues such as intermittently losing internet, sirens on the ground and aerial firefighters overhead, Creed said.

"This is a fluid situation," she reported. "We're still working through the triage stage. Then we'll work on finding out how our clients have been impacted, and then we'll look to how we handle our communications and marketing efforts going forward."

In the meantime, Town & Country Travel has put on hold all its email campaigns and mailers. Creed said the agency's first goal is to help and support the community "in ways that may or may not at all relate to travel."

At least one of the agency's clients lost their home in Malibu. Reder's agency also has a number of clients in Malibu who lost their houses, she said.

"I have a feeling we will be affected somewhat with business," she said, noting that Malibu has been "devastated" by the fires. "I have a feeling we'll field a couple of cancellations. I don't know if there will be a lot, but I think we'll feel something. We have a bunch of clients who have lost their houses. It's really sad, awful."

Among those who were dealing with the fires from farther afield was Leah Winck of First in Service Travel in Santa Monica, Calif.

Winck last week was at the Emotions Travel Community conference in Barcelona. Immediately upon landing in Spain, she found herself trying to find a hotel room for her family back home, including two dogs. After five hours on the phone, she found a room that was more than two hours from their home.

"It has been so difficult to be far from my family," said Winck, who described herself as "extremely fire-phobic" after a blaze came close to her house in 2005, forcing her to evacuate.

"I'm anxious to get home and scared to see the tremendous devastation that my community suffered," she said. "It was hard enough going through the shooting, and hours later, this."

Katie Cadar, director of leisure services for Los Angeles-based TravelStore, was at an overnight event about an hour away in Terranea when the fires started. They came within 300 yards of her home.

"For one night, I was sure it had burned, but we were very lucky, as it is still standing," Cadar said. "In my immediate neighborhood, three homes were lost." 

One of Cadar's agents lost her home, as did another agency owner with whom she is friends.

"I grew up in Malibu and have been through many fires, but I've never seen anything like this," she said. "It was so huge and moved so fast."

Consortia are in the process of checking on and assisting members who might have been affected by the fires.

Travel Leaders Network president Roger Block said the network has been reaching out to its hundreds of agents and independent contractors in California. So far, all have reported being OK, except for having to deal with smoke or ash, he said.

Kathryn Mazza-Burney, executive vice president of Travelsavers, said that in times of crisis, the consortium always conducts welfare calls to its members and members of the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel.

"Right now, helping our partners protect their clients and preserve their professionalism is our priority," she said. 

That includes helping advisers who can't access reservations. Call centers are open to help leisure agencies that have communication issues.

Creed said Town & Country Travel's first priority now is figuring out which clients have been impacted and reaching out with a message of concern. She said she believes that once the immediate danger has passed, they will continue traveling.

"I think that people are resilient, and I know that for a lot of our clients, travel is not just a lifestyle, but it's a way of being in touch with the world," she said. "There might be a lull, especially as we're headed up on the holiday time here, but I think that it just further emphasizes the point that life is fragile. You have one shot at it. You should live it and make the most of it, and for a lot of our clients, that includes a lot of great travel experiences."

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