For most of them, they aren’t far away from home.
Yet, they’re a world away.
Some of the adults look stunned. And some of the kids look overwhelmed.
You can see literally thousands of them there here in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, the 71,500 seat football stadium that normally hosts happier events, such as San Diego Chargers football games and rock concerts.
But this time the massive stadium built 40 years ago isn’t hosting boisterous, tailgating, sometimes combative Chargers fans. Now, it’s a makeshift refuge for San Diegans of all income levels and all religious, ethnic nationalities and political persuasions — and of all ages.
This time, the stadium’s 18,500 parking spaces aren’t dotted with fired-up people “tailgating” by grilling hotdogs and hamburgers but with fire-chased people — some of them with uneasy looking displaced pets. These people sit in beach chairs next to cars filled to the brims, or under canopies of two person sleeping bags.
This time, it isn’t friends who come over to the people in these spaces to playfully steal a beer but volunteers of all ages including diligent San Diego teens handing out coloring books, canned food, water and offering news on cots that’ll be available later in the night. This time, the uniformed people aren’t stadium security people but tirelessly working National Guard unloading huge bags of food, used clothing, emergency beddding and other supplies from big trucks.
This time, the vehicles in the stadium aren’t just fans’ vehicles but many huge trucks from corporations that sped to the scene to help (most notable: Walmart).
For Southern Californians and San Diegans in particular, the brutal, no-mercy wildfires which have led to some 500,000 Californians being evacuated — the largest evacuation in state history — is a double fisted sucker punch in the gut (or lower) delivered by a most unlady- like Mommy Nature: San Diegans went through something like this during the fires here four years ago. WHAT AGAIN? When you talk to families in the stadium there is a sense of fatalism amid the courage and the pain.
But it’s the kids who tear your heart out.
Suddenly they’ve been plopped abruptly into another world, as jarringly as if they had been snatched off the street by some perverted kidnapper.
I visited the stadium in my other incarnation to try and lift the spirits of families. And, in the process, I got to talk to many of them: families with various ethnic backrounds and from low incomes and high incomes. They all seemingly took the fires that continued to whip through California for a third terrible day in stride…but the operative word is “seemingly.” They seemed shellshocked, glad to be alive and had some delicate work to do if they had children who seemed puzzled by being uprooted but were appraised of what had happened. And they were painstakingly taken care of by a host of volunteers.
One woman and her family fled from the northern San Diego county country town of Ramona. She had her son, daughter, husband and mother with her. They had fled as soon as they recieved the official evacuation notice. She was so grateful at the way she was being treated with volunteers and the National Guard giving her needed blankets and some first-aid cream for her daughter, who cut her finger when they fled their house.
One five year old boy told another story. “The fire was burning our house!” he told me.
“No,” his mother said. “We could see the fire very close to our house and he thinks it was burning the house.”
The boy, Carlos, was from Northern San Diego county. He sat next to his 2-year-old sister whose face was smeared with vanilla ice cream as volunteers circled the stadium, offering coloring books, crayons and ice cream bars to the kids. His mother had her hands full — particularly with the boy’s father who looked stunned. Shocked. Saddened. In a state of grief. He was the one who was having the most trouble coping with the fact that all he and his family had worked so hard for and finally owned might be wiped out.
The stories the famlies told were the same. Most got out as soon as they were told to leave. Most said “we hope we can go back soon” but didn’t have any weather updates. And most tried to find a way to find the perfect, available parking lot or inside-the football stadium living space that could be best suitable for them and their loved ones.
A woman sat next to a beautiful red setter named Kaylin just inside the stadium walls near the foot court. She said of her dog:”He does a lot better in here since out there on the concrete it’s so hot for him.” Her two elementary school kids sat next to her busily working activity books that volunteers had just given them.
Teachers who had the day off weren’t not working. They set up a game area for the displaced kids.
This constant panorama of families in pain and kids trying to figure out why their worlds were grabbed from them was punctuated by the volunteers constantly making the rounds — seniors, teens (8th grade through high school senior year), health agency officials and the ever-present National Guard. Food was plentiful both from donations and food lines offering a wide variety of foods that fire refugees took as they walked down a long food line and plates were brimming.
But when the smoke literally clears, there may be a larger question for California residents, especially those in Southern California.
People who don’t live in California have often wondered why people live here due to its reputation for earthquakes, mudslides and occasional fires.
But now massive wildfires have spread twice in four years. The “been there, done that” is coupled with a sense of “shouldn’t we be better prepared if we’ve been there done that?”
And perhaps it is an unfair undercurrent. Because California did learn from four years ago and did some things much better.
On Sunday, as I headed down to San Diego from Northern California, you could already see the beginnings of what by Monday had become a virtual caravan of fire fighters rushing down to southern California so that this time response teams were on the scene ASAP. This time communities were told to evacuate ASAP — often via use of reverse 911 telephone calls from officials to homes.
But perhaps its getting close to the time where Californians and others thinking about moving here will look at the increasingly frequent natural disasters and wonder if the California sunshine is really worth it if your ground shakes, the trees in your yard burn — and your wide-eyed, innocent five year old is traumatized and you have to spend the night sleeping on a cot inside a football stadium hoping you don’t have nightmares.
Joe Gandelman is editor-in-chief of The Moderate Voice.