As homes burn, the evacuees of San Diego lap up the good life

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The fire evacuees huddled by the thousand at San Diego's American football stadium may not have known whether their houses were still standing. But they still had options, suggesting that life – southern California style – would emphatically go on.

There was the 3.30pm yoga class. The meditation and healing centre. The telecom station where they could check their email or make free international calls. An abundance of free massages and acupuncture.

They could play chess, or enter a sudoku competition, or try their hand at a table-top golf game involving cue sticks for clubs and giant tiddlywinks for golf balls.

If they were hungry, they could choose from a broad international menu, from Vietnamese picnic fare to beef enchiladas, to ravioli al pomodoro. If they were tired, they could opt for a simple fold-out bed or bring their family inside a state-of-the-art tent, donated free of charge, complete with tarpaulin to protect against any untoward elements.

And if they had what might politely be termed lifestyle issues, then the shelter staff could take care of those, too. Flyers all over the stadium advertised an evening Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Naturally, it took place in the stadium bar.

It didn't take more than five minutes inside Qualcomm Stadium – usually home to the San Diego Chargers, who have decamped for the week to Arizona – to appreciate that this was very far from your average disaster shelter.

When evacuees from Hurricane Katrina piled into the New Orleans Superdome two years ago, the place became a byword for human misery – not helped by the heat, the dearth of basic medical supplies and the stench of human faeces, and the lurid stories, many of them just rumours, of rape, beatings and murder.

Qualcomm Stadium could not have been more different. The evacuees – about 9,000 at the height of the crisis – stayed mostly in the outer rings of the arena, setting up tents or beds in semi-private nooks within easy access of showers and toilets. The climate – warm but not stifling – certainly helped but the relief effort was so organised that a cluster of heat lamps was on hand, just in case.

So many volunteers came forward that, at times, they actually outnumbered the victims. Likewise, so much was donated – food, clothing, toys, medical supplies, tents, water, even home-made cookies – that by Wednesday a big sign at the stadium entrance read: "No more donations accepted."

Word of the riches on offer spread so quickly that hundreds of people unaffected by the fires showed up anyway. The police cracked down on Wednesday afternoon, saying the shelter was for evacuees only and they would carry out spot checks if necessary. About 1,000 people got up and left. The police called in the Border Patrol to arrest six Mexicans, in the country illegally, who they caught stealing food and water.

The police also threw out a number of entertainers and performers who had shown up in search of a new audience. "The atmosphere was getting too carnival-like," said an LA-based comedian calling himself Fat Jewish Guy. He hastily made arrangements to stage his stand-up show on the outer perimeter of the stadium.

The wildfires presented a very different sort of disaster from Katrina because the vast majority of the evacuees could expect to go home again once the flames subsided. Most of those displaced in San Diego County – estimates vary from about 600,000 to a million, out of a population of just above three million – moved in with relatives or friends, or took the opportunity to drive out to Las Vegas for a few days' gambling. Others checked into hotels.

Those who moved in to shelters – about 27,000 across the whole region – tended to be poor or marginal people, or else spillover members of extraordinarily large families. "I'm staying with my uncle, but my mother and father are sleeping here," explained Derek Meador, a 12-year-old from Spring Valley in the eastern San Diego suburbs.

His family didn't exactly have long to make plans: "We were woken at 2am and told we had five minutes to evacuate. We just brought along a few things. I still don't know if the house is OK." Brandy and Charlie Butler, a couple from the town of Ramona where the biggest fire started, set up camp in the car park, along with their six cats and a rabbit. "Our car doesn't lock," said Brandy, pointing to a 20-year-old Ford parked next to their donated tent and animal boxes.

They were thrilled with their treatment, apart from an unfortunate episode when one of their cats was accidentally put aside with animals needing adoption.

Yesterday, they headed home, having heard their apartment survived. Brandy explained that while Charlie was unemployed, she worked as a waitress at a restaurant. "As long as that didn't burn down," she said, "I got a job still."