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Northeastern San Bernardino, California, as the wildfires light up the night sky (photo courtesy of Chris Doolittle).

Northeastern San Bernardino, California, as the wildfires light up the night sky (photo courtesy of Chris Doolittle).

Shelter, but not relief
By Gina Piccalo For Los Angeles Times.

October 29, 2003

Anxiety and stoicism mix in a crowded hangar. ‘It’s been a long three days,’ one fire evacuee says.

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.

This map represents dying trees in the San Bernardino National Forest, an important factor of the fast spread of the fires. The percentage of dead trees in the area is greater than living trees, illustrated by the darker colors.

This map represents dying trees in the San Bernardino National Forest, an important factor of the fast spread of the fires. The percentage of dead trees in the area is greater than living trees, illustrated by the darker colors.

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.

Helicopter returns for another load after dropping water on the front lines of the Old Fire in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. (photo courtesy of Matt Artz)

Helicopter returns for another load after dropping water on the front lines of the Old Fire in the foothills of the
San Bernardino Mountains. (photo courtesy of Matt Artz)

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.”

Compared to the clamor inside the shelter, the parking lot was peaceful. People set up tents and lawn chairs and sat in the dark, talking and sometimes laughing. Gary Parsons sat outside his SUV, smoking a cigar, while his son Bryce strummed a guitar. They chatted with their neighbor while their white Labrador slept soundly in the back of the car.

“She doesn’t do well with shelters,” said Gary, “just like I don’t do well with shelters.” The Parsonses left Running Springs when the voluntary evacuation started on Sunday, but that first day they went fishing and slept outside along the Santa Ana River. “There’s a lot of stress,” said Gary. “But we’ve kind of got to deal with it in our own way.”

A few cars away, Beth Rodriguez stared vacantly at nothing at all. She’d heard the flames were lapping at the mountains close to her Rimforest home. She was tired and wanted a hot shower. People were starting to hoard the free supplies, Rodriguez said, and she couldn’t get anything to dry off with other than a washcloth.

“It’s been a long three days,” she said. “It feels like years.”

At 10 p.m. it was lights out. People grabbed pillows and scratchy wool blankets and settled down on narrow nylon and aluminum cots that felt more like unsteady hammocks than beds. Some children wore pajamas. One girl had rescued her Kermit the Frog slippers. Some people fell asleep quickly; others sat up, wrapped in blankets, and watched as more people piled in. It would be hours before the room grew quiet.

At 11 p.m. a UPN reporter practiced her live shot at the entrance to the hangar. The bright lights drew a small crowd.

“There are a lot of sad stories to be heard here,” she said over and over again, trying to get the inflection just right. When her cue came, she talked about a family of eight children whose father returned home Monday to find the place had burned to the ground. After she finished, she turned to a man holding a toddler daughter in footed pajamas. “I talked about you,” she said.

“You did?” he said, smiling. He wanted to see a tape of the broadcast, but there was none to show him.

Volunteers kept the coffee brewing all night. They swabbed down the showers for the morning rush. Teenagers congregated in the room with the TV.

Dawn broke around 5, drawing a red scar through the sky. Most people still slept. But a few gathered around the television to watch live pictures of an inferno threatening the high school in Rimforest. “Many homes were lost overnight,” said the newscaster. One woman sat down and put a hand to her mouth. Others just shook their heads silently. “I’m not sure I want to live in the mountains anymore,” someone said. It was going to be another long day.

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