At Qualcomm Stadium, to which thousands of evacuees fled throughout the day Monday to escape approaching fires, the hazy and acrid air pinched the throat. Despite those reminders of the nearby inferno, the stadium seemed an oasis of order.
Hundreds of volunteers and city workers stacked up towers of pizza boxes, water bottles and blankets. Steaming cups of Starbucks coffee were on offer as well as free massages and reflexology sessions.
A clown twisted balloons for children, several volunteer autism specialists were available to give parents of disabled children a break, and an electric guitarist jammed with his speaker turned low.
The stadium, normally home to the San Diego Chargers of the National Football League, is the county’s largest evacuation center. Many of the evacuees came from hard-hit areas like Rancho Bernardo and Poway, middle-class communities northeast of San Diego where huge fires fed on dry shrub and grasses.
Many families sat in the bleachers all day watching ceiling-mounted televisions for reports of their neighborhoods.
“I saw a live video of our apartment complex burning,” said Raj Panandian, a 26-year-old software engineer. He and several of his neighbors left the complex at 4 a.m. after receiving a telephone call from San Diego County Fire Department officials.
“I had just settled down there six months ago,” said Panandian, an Indian citizen. “I had bought furniture, and everything. The only thing I managed to save was my passport and my H-1 work visa. I think everything else is gone.”
Yuan Ling, 43, a chemical engineer who rents a home across the street from the apartments, said her family left shortly after dawn, as white smoke flooded the house.
“We were one of the last in our neighborhood to leave; we were hoping it would improve,” Ling said. She said she was calling her house periodically to see if there was still a dial tone.
Ling, a native of Shanghai, said that her visiting in-laws were struck by the orderly procession of cars, even in gridlocked traffic with flames dancing along the side of the road, and by the kindness of donors and volunteers at the stadium.
“I thought, this is amazing,” Ling said. “This kind of thing would never happen in China.”
Victor and Janelle Charles woke up in their Rancho Bernardo condominium before dawn struggling for breath. They watched the flames crest the high hill behind their house and waited until it ignited a tall cross standing about 50 yards away.
“When I saw the cross was ablaze, that’s when I said, ‘OK, we need to go,’ ” Charles said. He and his wife lived in the condo for seven years, but they packed in only 10 minutes and fled down the hill in their car as winds whipped embers across the road.
They still do not know whether their house is standing, and as of Monday afternoon were still trying to figure out where they would sleep overnight.
Carl DeMaio, 33, evacuated his home at dawn, drove straight to Qualcomm and started organizing volunteers who arrived even before city officials did.