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San Diego Lies Low as Fires Burn, Ash Falls

Displaced residents flock to Qualcomm Stadium, city officials try to boost spirits and donations of food and services pour in.

October 28, 2003|Tony Perry, Kimi Yoshino and Mike Anton | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — Under a gentle rain of ash, this usually buoyant city hunkered down Monday to hold out against a destructive force so powerful even the city's military might was powerless to oppose it.

"Ask anybody who has ever fought a war: Sometimes it makes more sense to go underground and wait out the enemy," said Jim Adamson, retired Marine turned land developer. "That's what San Diego is doing now: letting the enemy move past."

The fires, which have destroyed some 900 structures in semirural and suburban areas to the north and east of downtown San Diego, appeared to have passed their destructive peak, officials said. But in most residential and commercial areas, an eerie calm -- a kind of informal curfew -- settled over half-deserted streets and forced some businesses and offices to close.

Mayor Dick Murphy urged residents of the state's second-largest city to stay indoors for the sake of their health and to keep streets clear for emergency vehicles. For the most part, they did. Six television channels provided all-day coverage.

Government offices, schools and colleges were closed; private businesses allowed employees to stay home; and shopping centers were nearly empty. Flights at Lindbergh Field were reduced.

The scheduled NFL "Monday Night Football" game was moved to Arizona.

"It's San Diego without people, that's what it is," said Jill Wilson, an accountant working downtown. "Public life is at a standstill today, like a funeral."

"It reminds me of the day after President Kennedy was assassinated," said longtime San Diego resident John Milburn. "Everybody is in shock and just wants to stay inside and try to cope."

San Diego Wild Animal Park, with its collection of endangered animals, closed midmorning to evacuate some of its most prized inhabitants, California condors. Along with South African cheetahs, porcupines and reptiles, the birds were moved to safer quarters.

Navy bases were largely deserted, except for law enforcement and anti-terrorism personnel. The Naval Medical Center was open only for emergency care.

The City Council canceled its session, which was to include a tribute to a longtime fire official.

City officials, dressed in bright yellow jackets, held frequent press conferences hoping to buoy the spirits of residents.

"We will rebuild our city; we will be stronger as a result," said Councilman Jim Madaffer.

As officials worked to establish a sense of order, scores of volunteers brought food, clothing and more to the thousands of people displaced by the fire.

Much of the activity took place in the parking lot at Qualcomm Stadium, which began as an unofficial evacuation center Sunday and grew so full that officials directed residents to centers run by the American Red Cross and other groups. An almost festive atmosphere emerged.

"Out of a really, really bad situation, I noticed it brought people together," said Navy Petty Officer Jose Tirado, one of several dozen sailors sent to Qualcomm to help keep order and distribute food. "People keep giving and giving and giving. It's been pretty amazing."

A chiropractor asked whether people had back pains. A massage therapist offered free rubdowns. Sushi was available, along with hot dogs and soda. A pet company provided free food and bowls for household animals.

North on Interstate 5, the Del Mar Fairgrounds provided stalls and feed for an estimated 700 horses brought by their owners, or in some cases by volunteers in an ad-hoc horse-trailer brigade.

Along with the horses were two llamas, four goats and numerous cats and dogs.

"Strangers were just showing up with trailers," said Nicco Murphy. "I never saw this guy in my life and here he was driving away with my horse. He was great."

Lisa DeFino, who lives in the San Carlos neighborhood but stables her horse in Poway, allowed a volunteer to take her horse to safety. She was relieved to find the big gelding in fine spirits.

"He doesn't trailer very well," she said. "That's what I was freaking out about."

At the Qualcomm lot, clowns and a ventriloquist circulated. Church members handed out Bibles and tracts.

By late afternoon, after repeated official requests, evacuees moved on to other shelters. By dinnertime, volunteers outnumbered the people they were attempting to help.

While parents talked of insurance and fire damage, kids were unclear about the cause of the unusual day. "Daddy, it's snowing," said 4-year-old Trey Fiderer.

Thousands of evacuees and volunteers wore the masks. In the spirit of the day, Trey had outfitted his stuffed green snake with a dust mask.

The sun shone like a bright orange ball. Residents worried about the homes they had been forced to abandon.

"So far, we've called our answering machine and it's answered," said Cindy Ramirez, 44, of Tierrasanta. "I feel dirty and disgusting, and I want to go home."

Although the region has a history of brush fires, many residents said the power of the fast-moving blaze caught them by surprise.

"I never dreamed fires were like that," Joan Popyack said.


Times staff writer Stuart Pfeifer contributed to this report.

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