Dispatch from a Burning San Diego

Just about two days after wildfires seemingly engulfed all of San Diego County, turning Southern California into a Hell worse than, well, Southern California, FEMA is thinking about showing up, Michael Chertoff is on his way to survey the damage (and not look totally incompetent on television just yet -- though he is a few hours late already), and the National Guard is here. That being said, as of noon on Tuesday, October 23, over 500,000 people that live in San Diego County have been evacuated. Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Chargers, is housing more evacuees than Network Associates Coliseum often plays host to during a Raiders home game. 70mph gusts of wind combined with under 10% humidity has made the three biggest fires 5%, 1% and 0% contained, having burned well over 200,000 acres combined. We're told that that 5% containment, after the fire has blazed for two full days, is great news. The size of all the fires combined is bigger than New York City. Over 1,000 houses have been lost. And, in case you were worried, when it all started, the news coverage focused more on the multi-million dollar homes catching fire than the (then) more deadly fires closest to the Mexican border. How odd.

That being said, the roles have switched, and the fires farther north -- those affecting the more affluent areas -- have merged into one 150,000 acre fire, cutting swaths back and forth throughout the region, revisiting some towns a second time, burning down houses it missed the first go-round. The Santa Ana winds are so strong, choppers have had trouble getting into the air to assess the best way to attack the fires, or drop retardant on the flames. But because (more) fancy mansions might burn down and white dudes might lose their houses, states of emergency are declared, and the president is stopping in on Thursday to tell us that everyone's doing a heck of a job. Until the Feds really mobilize, however, firefighters from up and down the state have hauled ass down to San Diego County to do everything possible. Blackhawks are in the air, doing something useful, or at least keeping the Navy busy.

And yet, near my apartment, over a dozen miles from any of the flames, business as usual. Pizza was delivered, gas tanks were filled, even costumes worn once were returned to Party City before receipts expired (and since when are costumes fifty bucks, anyway?). If it weren't for the thick layer of Pompeiian ash at my feet as I walked from my car to my office in San Diego's South Bay, I could live my life oblivious to the mass disaster around me, perhaps just wondering why the air was a little funny.

But I keep the TV and radio on as long as I am awake. I see and hear the devastation, but I also see and hear, either because of or in spite of the dangers all around us, an outrageous amount of support coming from the San Diego community. People are opening their homes to strangers that need a place to stay. Businesses are opening their parking lots for RVs, horses, and everything else in between. Even that GREAT EVIL Wal-Mart has donated thousands of cots for the displaced. People are calling radio stations informing others where and how to help out -- and people are listening. There has been a steady procession in and out of Qualcomm of civilians dropping off anything they can afford to give. One person, displaced to my couch last night, stated he was almost embarrassed to witness the amount of charity being poured out in the midst of this disaster, considering the Katrina debacle, and all the "snags" that went along with that.

It's nice to see that even if FEMA had decided to sit on its thumbs for three days before stepping foot over here, the residents of San Diego decided to take care of themselves. I had planned on going to Qualcomm myself tonight, yet the radio tells me that they actually have too many donations. There are more volunteers than they know what to do with. I will be taking supplies to another site, where they are announcing they need no more food or water -- too many people have given those necessities. Instead, they are asking for specifics, such as denture cream and sandwich bags. And the beautiful thing is, they'll get all of that. San Diego as a community has banded together, and we're insisting that we don't even need George Bush to care about us, whether or not he arrives on Thursday. With help from the extraordinary efforts of the state's firefighters, the members of the community here will take care of each other.

UPDATE via text message: In the past 20 hours since I wrote my post, the fires have nearly doubled, and the situation has gotten much worse. Anyone with the means is asked to help by donating to the Red Cross.