updated 2/29/2008 10:42:58 AM ET 2008-02-29T15:42:58

The American Red Cross says it paid for a large number of hotel rooms in San Diego County that volunteers never used during last fall's wildfires.

Spokeswoman Laura Howe refused to say how much the charity overpaid or how many reserved rooms went empty. She said that information was confidential under a contract with a company that handles accommodations.

A message left after business hours Thursday with the company, Corporate Lodging Consultants, Inc. of Wichita, Kan., was not immediately returned.

The disclosure is the latest blow to the Red Cross, America's foremost emergency responder, which was criticized for its handling of donations contributed after the Sept. 11 attacks and for an inconsistent response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"The American Red Cross has determined that an unusual number of hotel rooms were purchased but never occupied during the last year's wildfires," the congressionally chartered charity said in a statement Thursday. "These rooms were intended to house volunteers sent to the area to assist with the relief effort."

The Red Cross said it should have canceled rooms sooner, but it believes hotels made billing errors in some cases. The charity said some hotels billed "multiple times for unused rooms without calling to ask whether they were still needed." It asked some hotels to refund unused nights.

Robert Rauch, who runs a Homewood Suites hotel in suburban Del Mar, said no one checked in for about 10 of the 30 rooms the Red Cross booked in early November. He notified the contractor and canceled the reservations.

$30,000 in December
According to KGTV-TV in San Diego, the Red Cross paid one bill for more than $30,000 in December. The station said the document was provided by a hotel worker it did not name.

More than 4,000 Red Cross volunteers were in Southern California during the wildfires, and the agency found itself competing for hotel rooms with stranded visitors and hundreds of thousands of evacuees, Howe said.

The charity also overestimated the scale of the disaster in its early days, when more than half a million people were ordered to evacuate, Howe said. Most people went home within a day to neighborhoods that were largely unscathed. Shelters were largely shut down within a week after the fires started on Oct. 21.

Rapid payments from the federal government to families affected by the fires and a network of community charities in place from similar fires in 2003 also alleviated demand for Red Cross volunteers.

Nearly 2,200 homes were destroyed in the fires, which scorched about 800 square miles. Ten people were killed by the flames.

In future disasters, the Red Cross will review hotel invoices weekly during disasters and have an employee from the hotel vendor help volunteers coordinate reservations, Howe said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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