Smoke smothered the sunset. It choked the air with the smell of a thousand campfires as hundreds of people returned to an old airplane hangar in San Bernardino, their last resort after fires chased them from their homes.
Many of them had arrived Saturday night from canyon enclaves with names like Rimforest, Running Springs, Cedarpines Park. Here at the Red Cross shelter at San Bernardino International Airport, about 700 slept in a cavernous warehouse of people that echoed with baby cries, whispered "what ifs" and the incessant hum of anxiety. Out in the parking lot, 150 more slept in truck beds and driver's seats.
Life at the shelter was already becoming routine. On Monday night the place felt more like an impromptu sleepover than a haven from fast-moving fires. Children roller-skated on concrete floors, shouting, munching cookies. Young volunteers roamed the rows of cots with trays of Starbucks coffee and boxes of McDonald's hamburgers. Outside, a line formed at the Outback Steakhouse tent, while at the back of the hangar people picked up free razors, towels and soap and headed for the showers. Some evacuees swept the floors and picked up trash to pass the time. Others lay on their cots with their arms over their faces.
Throughout, small dramas unfolded. Near the information tables, a crowd gathered around a Red Cross spokesman as he told a group of local TV and newspaper reporters that the uninsured evacuees would have to wait for the federal government to come through before they could expect any financial help. "These things go in phases," he said.
That wasn't good enough for Terrie Boudreaux, who stood in her stocking feet and demanded some answers. "It's been three days and nobody can tell me if my house is still standing," she said. "One official told me I was toast." The TV cameras closed in on her. She said she didn't have renter's insurance, and she'd heard that 39 houses in her neighborhood in upper Waterman Canyon had "already gone up." Even the radio reports had stopped because the tower had burned down.
A lot of folks planned to make the shelter their home for the next several days. "Feel that wind?" said one woman as a dry breeze moved though the hangar. The Santa Anas, she said, were fanning the flames.
Many seemed determined to look on the bright side. They'd gotten out unharmed, with their families. And there was a place to go with hot coffee and warm blankets and lots of other people in the same predicament. They took turns running to Wal-Mart. They exchanged news. They said "It's in God's hands" and "There's no point in getting hysterical" and "We'll just start over." But there were down moments. The Humane Society moved the evacuated dogs from an outdoor holding pen to something more substantial nearby, a signal to everyone that things were getting more permanent.
Donna and Jeff Schroer and their three boys stood out in this crowd. Unlike many others, they own their home and have fire insurance. Their cars always have a half tank of gas, and they planned their escape route long before this emergency. Still, Donna cried through their first night in the shelter on Saturday, and they ran through the terrible "what ifs" until dawn.
"The uncertainty is hard," said Donna.
"We're going to rebuild if it goes down," said Jeff. Besides, he added, "one thing we didn't like was the kitchen."
Just a few cots away sat David and Brenda Jamieson, their area marked by a few paper bags stuffed with clothes and toiletries. When they left their rented room in San Bernardino, they left for good. To the Jamiesons, this evacuation isn't the worst that could happen. Until two weeks ago, they were homeless, sleeping on a platform behind the library. A pastor eventually took them in, and they were finally feeling settled.
"We've been through these rough times before," said Brenda. "This isn't nearly as rough as we've seen it."
In the days before they came to the shelter, these families had watched the black smoke billow up the mountain, hitting one neighbor's house after another. They had waited for the army of firefighters that didn't come, because the fire just moved too damn fast.
Debra Quinn knew that it wasn't for lack of trying. She and her husband trailed a three-mile caravan of fire engines from San Francisco as they drove home to Cedarpines Park after a weekend trip. Pretty soon they were "four-wheeling it" up mountain roads, because the normal routes were all closed and they needed to pick up their five grown sons and their dogs. Ultimately, they had to leave the dogs.
Quinn was searching a map of the blaze called the Old fire posted near the entrance of the hangar. In the top right-hand corner it read: "Fire start: 9:15 a.m. 10/25/03." There was no time or date at the line that read "Fire end." An enormous red swath cut across the San Bernardino National Forest. "This is incredible," she said. "We have never seen anything jump so fast."