OCEANSIDE HIGH SCHOOL
By Promise Yee
The night the recent fires broke out in North County, Oceanside High School opened its doors to serve as an emergency evacuation shelter for victims.
Cal Fire, American Red Cross, CERT and San Diego Humane Society staff and trained volunteers led relief efforts to provide safety, water, food, basic health services, mental health services and access to insurance.
Red Cross public affairs volunteer Amy Hegy said 450 people were sheltered at the site.
“Everyone is welcome here,” Hegy said. “We provide a comfortable, nice, safe spot until they can return home.”
One resident displaced by the evacuations said she had just returned from an out-of-state trip to find the fire near her Oceanside home. She was able to pack a few essential items and load up her pets before the nighttime evacuation.
Once on the road traffic from the evacuation was bumper to bumper, she said. Being a retired military veteran she was able to drive through the San Luis Rey Gate of Camp Pendleton and reach the Oceanside evacuation center at 2 a.m.
She said once she arrived she received a warm welcome, water, food and support.
“The dogs love it here,” the Oceanside resident said. “I think it’s wonderful. This means the world to me.”
Inside the school parking lot a drive-up donation drop-off area saw a regular stream of cars loaded with items to contribute.
Volunteers said people began dropping off goods at 11 p.m. Dec. 7. Community donations continued the following day.
Oceanside Public Library technician J. Jenkinson drove up Friday morning to drop off food items the library had on hand for its events.
“It’s good to see everyone coming together to help,” Jenkinson said.
A site volunteer said no one who dropped off donations asked for a receipt, instead residents and business owners gave bottled water, hot pizzas, boxes of T-shirts and other usable items out of the goodness of their heart.
“One hundred drops and no donation requests,” the school staff volunteer said. “They just do it because they like to do it.”
Another volunteer said earlier that morning a man from an adjacent neighborhood hand pushed a cart of donations to the school.
“That was powerful,” the volunteer said.
Inside the school campus two shelter areas were lined with cots. The school auditorium had a check-in desk, a distribution counter for food and personal hygiene supplies, and a medical and mental health station set up next to the bedding.
Outside an insurance information table was staffed with experts.
Across the courtyard the smaller multi-purpose room had cots placed around the center’s tables and chairs to create a pet-friendly environment for evacuees.
Small pets were also housed in cages and kept on leash by their owners’ sides in an adjacent fenced in area outside of classrooms.
Hegy said the center will remain open as long as it is needed.
“This is their home now,” Hegy said. “They can take it one day at a time for as long as they need to put their home back together.”
Evacuation centers were also set up in Carlsbad, Del Mar, El Cajon, Escondido, Pala and San Marcos.
STAGECOACH COMMUNITY PARK
By Steve Puterski
CARLSBAD — As the devastating Lilac fire remained uncontained, evacuees held strong, kept calm and attempted to push forward as uncertainty lingered over whether their homes would be lost.
On the evening of Dec. 7, hours after Cal Fire gave mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders, about 264 people, 12 dogs, one cat and one bird, sought refuge at Stagecoach Community Park, which was soon at capacity.
For Oceanside residents Thomas Boothe, 58, and his wife, Joanne Bryant, 53, wildfire is a new type of disaster.
Boothe, a disabled vet who works on contract at Palomar College in the Veterans Services department, worked for the USO for 35 years and was a responder to Hurricane Katrina in 2007. He and Bryant also survived Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and moved to Oceanside three years ago from New York City. Bryant’s mother, who lives in Puerto Rico, survived Hurricane Irma earlier this year.
Perspective came into play, as Boothe noted his mother-in-law and her town were drinking water out of one pipe after the hurricane. He said the uncertainty of a disaster leaves many to panic due to the inability to control the situation.
“I wanted to be ahead of the game, and we came down here,” Boothe said. “I’ve seen horrible situations. The emergency response (here) was nothing like I’ve ever seen before. They were so organized and polite.”
Boothe and Bryant, who reside in Rancho Del Oro near Highway 76 and El Camino Real, packed up some clothes and left their home at about 11:40 a.m., about 10 minutes after the fire was first reported. Boothe said with his inexperience with wildfires, it was better to err on the side of caution.
They returned home several hours later and between 9 and 10 p.m. evacuated to The Forum Carlsbad, where others like them received a police escort to the park.
“I told them I won’t leave until the fire is at least 70 percent contained,” Boothe said. “Because with zero containment and unpredictable winds, it’s not a good move to go back. Nothing matters more than your life. This is the price you pay for paradise. It’s too beautiful to leave and I want to stay here.”
Bryant, who works at JC Penny’s in the fine jewelry department, said the professionalism and preparedness of Carlsbad police and the firefighters battling the blaze was unlike she or Boothe had ever seen. She said the ability of police to keep the situation calm spread through those evacuated.
“With the evacuation center, there has been nothing but professionalism … everyone has been so generous,” Bryant said.
The efforts of the city of Carlsbad and by extension of all responding agencies and volunteers, put the couple’s mind at ease. It’s one reason Boothe was sporting a T-shirt with the wording to the tune of “everything’s going to be all right.”
“The best advice I give for anybody going through this … worrying about your home will create anxiety,” Boothe added. “Once you realize you have no control of the situation, let those who are experienced, like these first responders, take care of you. If you fight against that, it creates tension for yourself and for them.”
At the shelter, meanwhile, Carlsbad Recreation Area and Shelter Manager Kevin Granse said said they received hundreds of visits, phone calls and voicemails from residents seeking to help, but they had to be turned away. Breakfast, lunches and dinners were donated by local restaurants.
During the intake process, Granse said it was imperative to keep the evacuees calm and it started with the staff understanding the situation.
“This is the fourth one for me,” Granse said of responding to a disaster. “Their life just got turned upside down. We are the first people they are seeing and we need to be compassionate.”