SAN DIEGO-To the north, fires ripped through upscale suburban neighborhoods. To the south, black smoke boiled up from the hills. And to the west, flames devoured multimillion dollar estates. For the residents of San Diego County, the past 48 hours have seemed like 2003 all over again.
For the second time in four years, catastrophic wildfires roared across the county, whipped and driven by hot desert winds known as "Santa Anas." By 5 p.m. on Oct. 22, at least 600 structures (including 500 homes) had burned, with flames closing in on communities that burned to the ground in the massive fires that tore through San Diego County in 2003. By 8 p.m., the "Witch Fire," the county's northern-most conflagration, had consumed 145,000 acres and was zero percent contained. To the south, the "Harris Fire" had crawled over 22,000 acres and was only five percent contained.
The San Diego fires reached full force as emergency crews farther north battled an enormous blaze in the seaside enclave of Malibu. Fire officials called the California wildfires a "Hydra," with at least 15 separate burns raging in seven counties.
By evening, nearly 250,000 people had been evacuated in San Diego County alone, with residents fleeing to area high schools and to Qualcomm Stadium, located in the center of the city proper. Cars and motorhomes ringed the stadium with some people seeking shelter inside the NFL Chargers' home venue, and others setting up makeshift campsites in the parking lot.
Near dawn on Oct. 22, prompted by a mandatory evacuation order, the Sanger family fled their home in Rancho Bernardo, an affluent community off Interstate 15 near the San Diego Wild Animal Park. By twilight, the family-including four kids, ages, 6, 8, 10, and 12-was setting up a bright yellow tent in the parking lot at Qualcomm Stadium.
"We don't even know if we have a home to go back to," said plumbing firm owner Martin Sanger, as he grappled with the tent's frangible poles. "They won't let us go back and find out."
Though worried about his home, Martin Sanger remained upbeat. "You know what the best thing about today is? The generosity of the people. This tent isn't ours, that mattress isn't ours, and those blankets aren't ours," he said, gesturing across the three marked parking spaces his family will call home for at least one night. "People just came up and gave them to us. If there's one thing I'm going to do in the future it will be to help people in disasters, because I have so appreciated it."
Inside Qualcomm, the mood was similarly sanguine as most evacuees coped cheerfully with the early stages of displacement. Unofficial estimates of the number of people taking refuge there ranged from 3,500 to 10,000. Volunteers manned food stands and donation bins, handing out everything from fresh deli sandwiches to sleeping bags to cots. Some insurance companies had already set up booths.
Near Gate A, a blues band entertained with a raucous version of "Mustang Sally." The musicians don't normally play together, said drummer D.J. Jackson, 63. But, hearing of fire refugees, one old friend called another and another, until they had enough guys-then they assembled with amps and instruments at Qualcomm to lift spirits with music.
Though most evacuees seemed determined to smile through a night spent in an uncovered stadium, frustration crept through the cracks. Knots of people gazed up anxiously at wall-mounted televisions, hoping their home address wouldn't appear in the "crawl" across the bottom of the screen that listed homes that had burned.
At an emergency medical station, an agitated woman in a baggy orange football jersey tried to wrangle a wheelchair from a pair of no-nonsense female EMTs who were unmoved by her plight. "I've got two kids here and I need it to push them around!"
Meanwhile, San Diego fire crews need help, too. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said reinforcements were inbound from Nevada and Arizona. The governor also pledged to redeploy 800 National Guard troops from border duty to help with evacuations and crowd control.