The Elliotts of San Diego showed up Tuesday evening at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort after escaping the soot-thick air generated by the raging fires that left the family suddenly homeless.
“The smoke was so bad, they couldn’t even see in front of them,” said Jeanine DeRozieres, who was working at the Gila River Indian Community resort’s front desk when the family of five and their dog arrived.
“They were so happy to be in a nice place. The kids had been upset, and when they saw the resort, their little faces just lit up. Even if it’s just for a little while, I’m glad we could put a smile on this family’s face,” she said.
Twenty-two of the Elliotts’ neighbors also showed up at the East Valley resort seeking refuge, said Sheraton spokeswoman Kristen Jarnagin.
Hotel employees have been making an extra effort to welcome them with gifts, personal notes from the general manager and special touches such as folding bathroom towels into animal shapes, she said.
As fire continued to eat up more of the Southern California landscape, evacuees trickled into the Valley, and local businesses stepped up to help out.
The Valley hotel industry laid out its collective welcome mat.
Steve Moore, president of the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he has teamed up with his counterparts in the Scottsdale and Tempe bureaus and the Valley Hotel & Resort Association to compile a list of hotels with rooms at affordable rates to offer the evacuees.
“Our full-service hotels are relatively full this week, but we are asking all the limited-service hotels to offer evacuee rates that would be good until the end of the month, for us to offer to those evacuees who want to seek refuge in the Valley,” Moore said.
“We understand California is filling up. People have moved into Orange County. El Centro and Blythe (Calif.) are full, and Yuma is full. We believe the demand and need may extend to here, and we want to be ready for them,” he said.
Limited-service properties such as Hampton Inn, Courtyard by Marriott or Hilton Gardens typically offer rooms without such amenities as full-service restaurants or lavish meeting space.
The tourism leaders are offering the list of local hotels willing to provide evacuee rates to Southern California media outlets and Red Cross volunteers, said Debbie Johnson, president of the Valley Hotel & Resort Association.
By midday Wednesday, hoteliers from Tucson to Flagstaff had joined the effort, Johnson said.
The ad hoc tourism team is setting up an 800 number and Web site where displaced Southern Californians can find out about the Arizona options, she said. “We want people needing to leave to know we’re looking to help in any way we can,” Johnson said.
As of late Wednesday, more than 50 hotels across the state had anted up rooms, Johnson said. She didn’t know how many evacuees had taken them up on their offers. She said that mass cancellations of groups booked into Los Angeles-area hotels have freed up some rooms closer to home for evacuees.
Other Valley businesses are also pitching in their services. Salt River Project plans to send six four-man line crews and a support staff to help San Diego Gas & Electric Co. replace subtransmission and distribution power lines damaged by the fires, said SRP spokesman Scott Harelson.
SRP employees equipped with line trucks, hole diggers and wire-pulling equipment will head Friday to the Escondido area, and plan to stay for as long as three weeks, he said.
“They just have so much damage, and their resources are severely stretched,” Harelson said of the San Diego utility. “And getting electric service is going to be pretty important.”
Grid problems caused by the fires can put the entire state in jeopardy, he said.