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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 October 2007, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Fire evacuees turn stadium into home
By Richard Lister
BBC News, San Diego

Beds and birdcage at Qualcomm Stadium
Families were able to save pets from the fires as they fled
There can be few evacuation centres that offer live bands, free massage and acupuncture.

But this is California and the residents of San Diego are determined that those who fled their homes in the face of an unstoppable tide of fire and smoke, should have everything they need to make the Qualcomm Stadium a home from home.

At its peak the stadium housed 12,000 evacuees and the relief effort has been phenomenal.

There is no shortage of food, water or spare clothes. There are books for sale, mountains of toilet paper, boxes of toothpaste, cleaning supplies, pillows, towels and blankets.

So much has been brought that the officials at the Qualcomm Stadium have now asked people to stop bringing donations here.

Lessons learned

This is how one of the wealthiest regions of the USA responds to a crisis in its back yard, and it contrasts sharply to the response to Hurricane Katrina, in much poorer Louisiana.

Handing out supplies at Qualcomm Stadium
Volunteers have been providing food, tents and beds to evacuees

The overwhelming aid effort is of course also a response to the failings in Louisiana two years ago.

Every official I spoke to from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Fema, was at great pains to stress that many lessons had been learned from that debacle and they are determined not to be found wanting again.

Unlike with Katrina, those affected in California have for the most part nothing but praise for the way they have been looked after.

But there is a shortage of answers to the one common question that almost all the evacuees have: "When can I go home?"

For some 1,600 families, "home" was destroyed in the fires that have raced across the northern and south-eastern suburbs of San Diego since Sunday.

Long wait

Others have homes which are, so far, untouched - but still under threat from fires which have not yet been contained.

But slowly they are being moved to hotels and rented accommodation.

Children sleeping at Qualcomm Stadium
Many families fear they will not have homes to return to

Some could be there for up to a year while new homes are found, or repairs made to damaged ones.

Kinya Neeley and her sister fled with the flames just metres away from their apartment blocks. She recalled the moment they decided to leave.

"I got a call from my sister just after midnight. She said she had to leave, she opened her door and she saw the fire... So I told her, come on down to my house and let's go.

"When I got outside of my house, the fire was right there at the parking lots of my apartments... we just jumped in my van and came on down to Qualcomm Stadium."

Between them they have six children and home for all of them is now a narrow corridor, crammed with folding beds.

Kinya says she will be surprised if their houses are still standing - and the massages and free food do not really help to make that any easier.

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