San Diego Finally Gets Relief

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Denis Poroy / AP

A heavy layer of smoke and ash hangs over downtown San Diego, Oct. 27, 2007.

On Friday morning, San Diegans near the coast woke up excited to see something they're usually are not very happy about: fog. After five days of wildfires that charred more than 355,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,400 homes, the weather was mercifully showing signs of change. By evening, the hot desert winds known as Santa Anas were gone, replaced with a cooling breeze more typical for late October. Saturday morning saw dark clouds across the county and even some light rain.

By the time the Chargers reclaimed the Qualcomm Stadium field from the evacuees on Sunday, skies were blue and temperatures were in the low 70s. The week's biggest blaze, the Witch fire in North County, had burned 197,990 acres, destroyed 1,040 homes and was 95 percent contained. In the south, the Harris fire had burned 90,750 acres and was 65 percent contained. Full containment was expected Wednesday. Overall, the fires had destroyed 1,588 homes, damaged 320 others, killed seven people and forced 640,000 to evacuate.

Some of the displaced, like Rancho Bernardo resident and The One Minute Manager author Ken Blanchard, returned to find their homes destroyed. But most evacuees returned to find their homes intact, spared by either the valiant work of firefighters or the fire's erratic path.

It was a week of heroes and villains in the county. The community showed unimaginable generosity to evacuees — there were 90-minute traffic jams outside the stadium to bring in donations.

But there also were those who saw opportunity in misfortune. Looters, various scam artists and even burglars who tricked people into evacuating just to rob their homes led both San Diego district attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to promise a diligent hunt against the perpetrators.

President Bush visited San Diego County on Friday, at times walking shoulder to shoulder with his sometimes political rivals Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Touring devastated areas, Bush comforted homeowners, commended firefighters and told the people of San Diego that they would not be forgotten.

There were no embarrassing "Heck of a job, Brownie" sound bites to plague the President, but inevitable comparisons between the wildfires and Hurricane Katrina already have emerged. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's largest operation since Katrina has been seen as much smoother than its Katrina response in New Orleans two years ago, and FEMA director David Paulison said lessons learned from Katrina led to the federal government responding much faster in San Diego.

In both San Diego and New Orleans, the devastation was initiated by nature, thousands of people evacuated, and NFL stadiums were used for shelters. But the wildfires of 2007 and Hurricane Katrina were as different as fire and water. Katrina killed 1,800, destroyed 350,000 homes, significantly depleted the city's population and drove away many businesses. The Chargers were displaced for less than a week, but the Saints didn't return for a year.

While most people were not evacuated, everybody in the county was affected in some way by this week's fires. San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders advised people to stay home if possible, and many did just that. Shops, restaurants and all schools were closed, concerts and plays were canceled, and people were told to not exert themselves because of the poor air that irritated lungs and left an entire county with a hacking cough.