Mall Haven

Kevin Dotzler walks his llamas at the shopping center in El Cajon where his family opted to camp out rather than go to an official wildfire shelter.
Kevin Dotzler walks his llamas at the shopping center in El Cajon where his family opted to camp out rather than go to an official wildfire shelter. (By Peggy Peattie -- San Diego Union-tribune Via Associated Press)
By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007

VISTA, Calif., Oct. 25

This is where man flees when he cannot be separated from his purple dune buggy, the place where horses can graze at a bookstore and neighbors entertain each other with pictures of charred cabanas on their cellphones.

The free burritos just keep coming, the surroundings are oh-so-familiar, and anything they might possibly need -- Tires! Budget blinds! Mattresses! Organic juices! -- is right at their fingertips.

Such is the life of the rogue refugees, the hundreds in campers and RVs who fled the fires raging in Southern California and flocked not to official shelters but to what they considered the safest ground of all: the mall. Across the county, displaced San Diegans have sought refuge in the welcoming embrace of shopping centers, giving customer service a whole new meaning as merchants scramble to provide for the displaced, creating a grass-roots system that makes disaster, at times, seem like a giant tailgate party.

"I just wanna be in control," says Nancy Conway, explaining why she avoided the city's official shelter at the football stadium and instead parked her RV outside the Sears across the freeway from the flaming Escondido neighborhood she and her husband fled with four cats and two dogs Sunday night. Parked alongside them are their neighbors and friends, Roni and Dan Bethea. The families usually take their motorcycles and go camping together, so coming outside in the morning to see each other's RVs felt reassuring, Roni Bethea says, "except we're on asphalt."

After watching helicopters drop fire retardant on their neighborhood, the friends hiked up a back route to sneak a look at their still-closed community. Their houses were still standing, but the smoke damage was intense, Bethea says. She grabbed only the absolute necessities -- a bottle of vodka and some tonic -- and retreated to the parking lot.

Wednesday night, 20 friends dropped by for a big pizza party, and Thursday night, someone's husband is cooking a big batch of spaghetti.

"We're having a ball," Bethea insists. Sheila Roberts is in a similarly sunny mood, with a stay-behind neighbor's phoned assurances that her Ramona home is still intact. Her husband didn't want to leave his prized purple dune buggy, so the stadium was out, and it seemed natural enough to just pull up their 38-foot motor home and live where Sheila went shopping for her two sons' school clothes last month.

"I don't want to be surrounded by a lot of other people," Roberts says with a shrug, keeping an eye on a neighboring camper's four goats, which are helpfully pruning some shrubs outside Sears.

In El Cajon, the Westfield Parkway mall morphed into the Ponderosa during the peak of the evacuations, as more and more refugees began showing up with livestock.

"We had over 200 horses at one point. Goats. We had chickens. Some pigs. Also a porcupine," says Adrienne Bergeron, the mall's marketing director. A temporary corral was put up on the asphalt by Borders, and the RVs circled like a postmodern wagon train. Volunteers cared for the animals, and overflow was sent across the street to a Home Depot that was still under construction. The mall's multiplex became the refugees' home theater, offering free movies; the food court, their caterers.

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