Spent yesterday morning at the Del Mar Fairgrounds just north of San Diego, where 2,000 evacuees from across San Diego County were sleeping on cots in the exhibition hall. Several hundred elderly folks -- evacuees from area nursing homes -- were crammed into one of the halls, Mission Tower, which looks like an old Spanish church.
Ambulances lined up outside, as many of these fragile individuals required immediate transport to area facilities where they would receive better temporary care. Any place, it seems, is better than here. I am anguished by the scene, as many of them are bound to wheelchairs. Volunteers helped feed some of the patients. One elderly woman yelled in pain as two orderlies struggled to lift her with a hand-cranked from a mattress on the floor.
The director of California's Emergency Medical Services Authority, Dr. Cesar Aristeiguieta, pulled an all-nighter here, trying to figure out where to send all of these people. He said he would have moved almost all of them to "more appropriate beds" outside the county by noon. Governor Schwarzenegger was here the night before and gave full support to Dr. Aristeiguieta and his staff. They call him "Dr. Cesar", and he seems to like it. I was impressed by his sincerity and efficiency and his credentials. He told me he was an ER doc by training, and had worked as both a cop and an EMT earlier in his career.
The Del Mar Fairgrounds, on the edge of the Pacific, would otherwise be a venue for the county's fall pumpkin festival. It's also a big racetrack for horses. But most of the horses here now belong to evacuees. All of the stalls are full, and more horses are in trailers in a spillover parking lot.
I just met a woman named Nancy from a place called Valley Center. She said neighbors called her at 4:30 a.m. and told her the fires were heading up the hill toward her home. Thirty minutes later, Nancy said, she received an automated call -- reverse 911 -- from her local sheriff's office. In no time, she had loaded three horses, seven cats and two dogs into an enormous trailer and drove to the fairgrounds. She looked tired, like she's been running on pure adrenalin.
Nancy was desperate to find water for her horses. We offered to drive her over to the command center, where national guardsmen are on-hand to assist. Everyone walked around wearing masks, as the air was filled with thick smoke and ash.
Inside the main hall, it looked like a refugee camp. Are these environmental refugees, forced from their homes by Mother Nature? Their attitudes surprised me. These people were not in tears. Many of them seemed a little anxious and uncertain, but no one looked upset. I think to myself, is this a California thing? Are these just mellow people?
Eli Bowser was with his parents and grandparents. They all sat around a table in what resembles an incredibly crowded mall food court. Eli said he was trying not to worry about the fires and that his family is hoping and praying their house is spared. Next to them, a woman lay on a palette on the floor reading a book. Her teenage daughter was curled up next to her, fast asleep, as televisions blared the local news just overhead.
Volunteers kept flooding in, dropping off supplies at the front desk. One guy walked up and said, "I'd like to volunteer ... and I have some toothpaste." He handed four big tubes of toothpaste to the coordinator -- who sorted them -- and then he signed the volunteer roster. I can't believe the numbers of volunteers. They brought all sorts of supplies, from bottled water to pet food.
Leaving the fairgrounds, and looking off to the Pacific, it was hard to tell where the sky ends and ocean begins. It was all just a white haze.
-- By Alex Walker, Severe Weather Producer