The conflagrations in Southern California -- wind-whipped to an uncontrolled frenzy from north of Los Angeles to southeast of San Diego County -- forced an emergency cancellation of SGMA's Sports+Technology Convergence hours before it began and, on Tuesday, had fitness businesses and their employees closed and evacuated.
The sports technology conference was set to kickoff Tuesday evening Oct. 23, but when staff members awoke that morning, they found the fires had roared to a new size and increased danger. With most attendees and some presenters already on planes on their way to the venue at the Estancia resort in La Jolla in San Diego County -- and some already there -- emails were quickly sent and a notice posted on the website (www.stc.sgma.com) at about 10 a.m.:
"The situation in San Diego has changed significantly in the last hour.
Based on requests from the local authorities and the hotel per the strong recommendation from the federal government, we are canceling the Sports + Technology Convergence. We are taking this course of action as it is in the best interest of the safety of those attending.
If you are currently en route and able to turn back, we strongly recommend that you do. If you are unable to turn back, the Estancia remains a location that is currently not in danger and is currently accessible. Your reservation for tonight will be honored. Please make plans to leave San Diego as soon as possible."
By mid-afternoon Tuesday, more than a half-million San Diego residents -- the population of the city of Atlanta -- had been evacuated and 1,300 homes destroyed. The 17 fires from the Los Angeles area to San Diego covered 425 square miles. Emergency personnel forecast this figure would continue to grow.
Although the San Diego International Airport remained open and flight operations normal, per the airport's website (click here to see updates), part of the terminal is being made available to arriving passengers who live in evacuated areas. With no change in weather or turnaround in the emergency foreseen until at least Thursday, according to CNN, travelers are asked to check with their airlines about delays or cancellations.
"It's best that people turn around and go back," said Mike May, SGMA spokesman about arriving conference attendees, a few whom did indeed arrive, fetch luggage, then got back on a flight home again. He said more evacuations were still possible, power interruptions likely, and the inability or limits on getting around were additional reasons to cancel. In addition, the hotel told SGMA staff that it needed to make room for evacuees. Airlines have rebooked and cancelled without additional fees in most cases.
Bob Whip, Horizon president and SGMA board member, flew in Monday for a pre-conference board meeting but was intercepted at the hotel on Tuesday morning by a phone call telling him everything was cancelled. He scrambled back out that day. Even on Monday, though, the scene from the air was vivid, he said.
"Sights from the plane were wild," Whip said. "You could easily see the flames in the mountains and tons of smoke. Landing at the airport, it was hazy and you could smell the burn. Some people at the hotel were evacuees. My thoughts are with everyone out there. I can't imagine leaving your house wondering if it will be standing when you get back."
"Everybody's been very understanding and accommodating," said Kalinda Mathis-Bogue, SGMA director of communications, who said her team had reached a lot of people on transfers en route. "Our biggest concern and priority was the safety of the people who are coming in."
At the conference venue, which was untouched by the fire, black soot covered railings, gardens, decks and the pool, and the smell of smoke was strong in the air, Mathis-Bogue said.
Mark Goodman, owner of retailer Fitness Direct in San Diego, told SNEWS® from his cell phone from La Jolla -- the second place where he had evacuated with his family -- that all his employees were safe but all were evacuated except one who lived close to downtown.
"It's terrible," he said. "Everything is shut down. The fires are terrible. The winds are blowing so hard. The place is covered in smoke."
On Monday morning, he and his family evacuated to the oceanside community of Del Mar to the north to his parents, only for all of them to be evacuated from there. He expressed concern for his home, which was near a major fire that was already destroying homes.
"The fires are everywhere," he said.
Hoist Fitness, also based in San Diego, was not answering its phones, but a message told callers the business was closed and all employees should not come in. Many employees at Nielsen Business Media, the operator of the Health & Fitness Business show based in Orange County, were forced to evacuate, as did others at other area companies.
Bill Sells, SGMA director of public relations, flew into San Diego from Washington, D.C., but was also intercepted by a phone call at the San Diego airport after he landed to let him know he should just go home. He said Delta rebooked him without additional fees and that he spent about 1.5 hours in the airport, before boarding a plane home, getting a bird's-eye view from the air both times:
"The view from the air of the fires was very telling," he told SNEWS® in an email. "You could see smoke from more than five separate fires on the approach and departing. You could determine exactly where the fires were by tracking the smoke back to the source. Most of the fires had long trails of smoke leading to the ocean, but one fire up in the mountains created a thundercloud of smoke."