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In the Great State of Serenity, Staying Cool Amid the Flames

Evacuees sift through mounds of donated clothing at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
Evacuees sift through mounds of donated clothing at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. (By Jack Smith -- Bloomberg News)

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By William Booth and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

SAN DIEGO, Oct. 23 -- If you need to flee from a giant fire that threatens to turn your world to ashes, Ronald Garza allowed between bites of an ice cream bar Tuesday, "this is probably the best place to be." By "this" he meant Qualcomm Stadium, now filling with more than 20,000 evacuees and volunteers, where Garza waited for a free massage while his wife was off getting coffee. "Starbucks," he said.

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Officials are calling these some of the worst wildfires that San Diego County has seen in modern history. More than 500,000 people have been forced from their homes. But there is also a unique feel to this natural disaster, a distinctly California style, and it is not just the constant presence of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the TV screens.

Meaning: California is dealing with it. Automated "reverse 911" calls were alerting residents to mandatory evacuations. Shelters opened almost immediately. "This is going to be a major hit on the economy here in San Diego," Schwarzenegger said. "But we've been through this before, and we're going to help San Diego."

Many evacuees of the wildfires mentioned Hurricane Katrina, and while they quickly said that the two disasters were completely different, they seemed to be proud of the coordinated outpouring of help and support.

"Nobody does disasters better than California," said R. David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, after visiting Qualcomm Stadium with the Republican governor.

Every motel room in San Diego is booked, so good souls have taken to posting offers on Craigslist of free room and board for evacuees. At emergency shelters in high schools and recreation centers, the huddled masses have flipped open their laptops to scroll through satellite maps to pinpoint the fires' progress. Some of the most up-to-date information is coming out of the neighborhood blogs, which are filling with images of yellow skies and burning hills, taken with cellphone cameras.

"This is a neighbor-helping-neighbor situation," San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said at Qualcomm, drawing a round of applause from his constituents.

In San Diego County, schools and colleges are closed and many businesses have told workers to stay home, so the freeways are eerily open. In Malibu, the famous drug and alcohol rehab centers tucked away in the scrubby canyons were briefly evacuated of the rich and addicted. In one of the largest fires north of Los Angeles, residents of the Stevenson Ranch development watched flames skirt past the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park, with televised images showing billowing smoke roiling behind the roller coasters.

In the Orange County city of Aliso Viejo, workers were heading into corporate parks on Tuesday morning as a huge cloud of smoke poured above the hills several miles away. "Just another day at the office," said David Stein, a mortgage analyst. He was joking, of course. "I think we'll probably eventually take the day off," he said.

But the reality on the ground was that while the fires burned in the hills, people went to the malls. While the fires were massive and widespread, and the skies over Southern California smelled of choking smoke, the damage was scattered and not nearly as lethal as was feared. Two people were confirmed dead as of Tuesday evening.

At Qualcomm Stadium, where the San Diego Chargers play, thousands of evacuees were camped in the parking lot in their cars and RVs, and in tents and on cots. Tables were piled high with food. There were pallets of apples and bananas, and semitrailers filled with ice. You could make your own sandwich -- or a volunteer would make one for you. There were stacks of cookies. Coolers brimming with icy-cold sodas. Volunteers offered coloring books and crayons to the kids.

In the land of plenty, there was plenty to offer. And many people are going to need the help. More than 2,000 structures, including 1,250 homes, have been lost in the fires, almost of all them in San Diego County.

One room of the Del Mar Fairgrounds was turned over to residents of a San Diego nursing home. Dozens of dazed elders sat in rows of wheelchairs Tuesday morning, their hair matted from sleeping on cots. Doctors with their names written on tape across their backs hummed around them. "It's been awful," Nita Pearre, 86, said of the evacuation. She is not a nursing home resident but was segregated with the elderly. "Makes me feel old," she said. "I didn't sleep too good. Who could?"

Pearre worried about her home in Rancho Bernardo, which has been shown in flames on television for two days. But "they're wonderful here" at the evacuation center, she said. "I had a good blanket, good and warm. There was mattresses for everyone. It's been marvelous."

At the stadium, there were mountains of clothing and bedding. One man was trying on a pair of leather pants. A local pizza maker told a radio reporter that his pies were turned away because there was too much food. A cellphone provider was offering free calls to anywhere in the United States. An air-conditioned medical tent was erected. Doctors and nurses circulated. A sign advertised crisis counseling for "grief, loss, group or individual."

Staff Sgt. Zell Evans surveyed the scene. He is attached to a California National Guard task force that was moved from its mission along the Mexican border to Qualcomm Stadium. Guard members moved through the crowd without weapons. "This is real different from Katrina," said Evans, who spent 45 days in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane. "Here? There's no fear, no pushing, no fighting. Everybody is calm. It's just a completely different situation."

George Biagi, deputy press secretary to Sanders, said no visions of New Orleans danced in his head. "That was a whole region," he said. "With this, a lot of people can stay with friends. This is just a part of the city. And neighbors are helping each other out."


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