Football makes way for fire evacuees at Qualcomm

Updated: October 27, 2003, 7:37 PM ET

SAN DIEGO -- It was as surreal a scene as the yellowish-brown sky, the blood-red sun and wisps of ash blowing everywhere -- a woman in an Oakland Raiders T-shirt graciously accepting food from a San Diego Chargers fan, then giving him a hug.

That's just not supposed to happen, especially in a football stadium's parking lot.

But this was far from an ordinary day in San Diego, when real life interrupted the sports world.

The Raiders fan, Denise Banks, was at Qualcomm Stadium on Monday afternoon because she and her family had been ordered out of their home in a nearby neighborhood as a devastating wildfire swept dangerously close 24 hours earlier.

The Chargers fan, Ed Ames, who runs a small construction company, was there because he felt he should be. He and a friend, Todd Brown, spent about $200 on food and drinks, set up a barbecue under a Chargers umbrella and began cooking hamburgers and hot dogs for anybody who was hungry.

And the game that had been scheduled for Qualcomm Stadium on Monday night, between the Chargers and Miami Dolphins, was an afterthought. With three major wildfires burning out of control in the area, the NFL decided Sunday night to move the game to Tempe, Ariz., after the city of San Diego said it could not be played at Qualcomm.

By the time the league made its decision, thousands of evacuees had gathered in the stadium's vast parking lot. It was an unofficial evacuation site, but one that was running with incredible efficiency.

Evacuees slept wherever they could on Sunday night -- in RVs, cars, tents or on air mattresses in the back of pickup trucks. By Monday afternoon, hundreds remained as they waited for authorities to let them back into their neighborhoods.

Some didn't know if they'd have homes to return to.

Paul Phelps and his wife got out of their rural east San Diego County home with their car, a camping trailer, his work truck and their dog.

"If the house is gone, that's all that's left," said Phelps, a construction foreman.

Phelps agreed with the NFL's decision to move the game, which would have been the Chargers' first Monday night game in seven seasons.

"Common sense tells you that. You pitch in and work together," Phelps said.

Various groups and businesses set up tables outside the stadium's gates and offered evacuees anything they needed -- food, water, medical attention, crisis counseling, phone calls, clothing, blankets and hugs from teenage volunteers. Chiropractors and veterinarians offered their services for free, and Petco, the local company that bought the naming rights to the Padres' new downtown ballpark, offered dog and cat food.

Padres slugger Ryan Klesko, who was wearing a Chargers cap and a dust mask to protect himself from all the smoke and ash in the air, was among those helping out. Wearing a name tag that said, "Volunteer, Ryan," he drove a golf cart ferrying supplies and evacuees in from the far sections of the parking lot.

Two Padres employees worked a portable concession stand, handing out bottled water and ice in souvenir cups left over from last January's Super Bowl. They were next to Starbucks employees passing out free coffee, who in turn were next to volunteers from the American Legion who were serving fried chicken and sandwiches.

"It's miraculously well-planned for such short notice," said Navy enlisted man Anthony Fiederer, who sat on the curb outside Gate B with his 3-year-old son, Ortega. "There's nothing that you can't get here." Volunteers walked by offering both ice cream and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

In a corner of the parking lot that's normally full of tailgaters on game days, someone left a table piled high with bottled water and blankets.

"A guy brought my daughter a blanket at 2 o'clock this morning because she was cold," said Banks, the woman in the Raiders shirt. "It's just wonderful."

Most people felt the NFL made the right call in moving the game. The air quality was horrible, and on this day, at least, football didn't matter.

"What's more important? People need a sense of community," said Tresa Hernandez, who was sitting in her family's RV, waiting for word they could return home. "It's just safe and everybody's natural instinct was to come to the biggest spot."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index