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Football stadium transforms into guest house for fire evacuees

  • Story Highlights
  • More than 12,000 people have sought shelter at Qualcomm Stadium
  • Doctors and nurses are among the volunteers attending to the evacuees
  • Restaurants, corporations and private citizens are donating food
  • Evacuees have been "very gracious and grateful," mayor's spokesman says
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- The home to the San Diego Chargers was transformed overnight into the home for more than 12,000 people seeking shelter from wildfires that have swept through the region.

Outside, thousands more filled about half the spaces in the 18,000-vehicle, 122-acre parking lot.

Many of them were setting up tents beside their cars and trucks.

Anticipating more arrivals, the Federal Emergency Management Agency delivered 25,000 cots to the city-owned, 40-year-old structure.

With more than 321,000 people forced from their homes by late morning Tuesday, FEMA's precautions appeared timely.

A steady stream of people joined those who had spent the night.

Many of them were using tents, chairs and piles of clothing and supplies to stake out a bit of private space inside the stadium, which covers 15 acres. Video Watch how shelters are taking in people and animals »

Among the volunteers was Tony Bradley, a restaurant worker by night and a magician by day.

He strode through the crowd captivating youngsters by twisting balloons into the shapes of animals.

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"That's what I'm here for, just to make them happy, make them forget about what's going on," he said. Video Watch evacuees say people have been 'amazingly generous' »

While many of the children were distracted, others sat with their parents transfixed before television sets tuned to news stations chronicling the advance of the fires. Photo See dramatic photos of the destruction »

Among the stadium's arrivals were Tammy McCall, her husband, their three children and their grandmother.

At 2 a.m. Tuesday, as flames approached their home in Spring Valley, they woke up their neighbors and fled, arriving at the stadium at 5 a.m.

"It was very scary," McCall said. "You never think you're going to be in this kind of position. it doesn't hit you until you're here with all the wonderful people that it actually happened." Video Watch an evacuee explain the trek to the stadium »

About the fate of their home: "We don't know." See a map locating the worst fires in the region »

In sharp contrast to the experience after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when evacuees at the stadium in New Orleans endured days without food or working toilets, the logistics at Qualcomm appeared well in hand.

The two disasters were very different, said George Biagi, deputy press secretary to San Diego Mayor Gerald Robert Sanders.

"We have the luxury of being able to count on our neighbors," he said in a telephone interview, adding that more than 1,500 people have offered their services at the stadium.

"The folks in New Orleans didn't have that luxury, because everybody was impacted." Video Watch a report on the lessons from Katrina »

Among the volunteers was a corps of doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians who set up shop in the stadium's four major restaurants on the club level, which are climate-controlled.

There, some 600 senior citizens and sick people were being cared for, cordoned off from the general hustle-bustle common throughout the rest of the stadium.

The stadium also had makeshift pharmacies stocked with prescription drugs through donations from Costco and Target, Biagi said.

Though some concession stands were being used to prepare hot dogs, most of the food was donated by restaurants, corporations and private citizens, he said.

"We have more than enough food," he said.

The 96 bathrooms -- 50 for women, 44 for men, 2 for either sex -- were in working order, he said.

In addition, a shelter was set up for 200 pets brought to the stadium by evacuees, while an infant area was stocked with plenty of diapers and volunteers manned a daycare center, he said.


"The evacuees have been absolutely amazing, very patient, very gracious and grateful," Biagi said. "Many of them turned around and volunteered."

But challenges remained. The temperature was expected to reach 88 degrees, and efforts were being made to ensure everyone had plenty of water, he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Thelma Gutierrez contributed to this report.

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