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More spartan digs for San Bernardino evacuees

San Bernardino:

They weren't handing out energy drinks, offering massages or directing evacuees to self-help classes at the Orange Show Fairgrounds on Thursday.

This wasn't San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium -- the Ritz of evacuation centers. This was its more spartan, less genteel cousin, a place packed with tough mountain people not always comfortable in the flatlands.

Not that they were complaining -- much.

"It's too freakin' noisy, too many kids. But what can you do, they have a lot of energy," said 54-year-old Joe Cote, a refugee from Green Valley Lake, one of the mountain communities that has seen dozens of homes burned to the ground. "The food isn't the greatest, but it's wholesome."

On Wednesday night, more than 1,800 people slept in the two enormous aircraft-hangar-like buildings. Row upon row of cots filled the vast rooms. Lines snaked toward the hot food stalls. Tables were set up by medical personnel checking for everything from asthma to head lice.

A chain-link fence became a makeshift day care center for the hundreds of children here. Once inside they played with balls, balloons and watched repeated showings of "Happy Feet."

Christine Brubaker, 36, found her solace at the kennel. She comes six times a day to see Lenii, her calico cat, now living in a cage among dogs, birds and one Rhode Island Red rooster.

Brubaker is in rough shape. She has no teeth, is wheelchair-bound and suffers from fibromyalgia and Crohn's Disease. And the Crestline resident is, like everyone else here, temporarily homeless. Her cat makes it bearable.

"When I get really stressed, the cat calms me down," she said, stroking Lenii. "This is the hardest thing, to watch her go through the pain of separation from us. See how scared she is, she isn't herself at all."

Being evacuated from the mountains has become almost a summer ritual. Many have been through it before and all agreed this was the worst fire but the best landing spot.

"I learned from last time," said 17-year-old Laura Ballinger. "This time I brought more than one set of clothes. It's been pretty good here, but whenever there is a line there is tension. I almost got into a fight with a guy who started yelling at my mom."

They may not have had the executive suites and perky attendants of Qualcomm, but the Orange Show, actually the county fairgrounds, had its own ways of soothing the jangled nerves of evacuees.

Neil and Darlene Peterson from the Gideon International Society couldn't keep their free New Testaments in stock. The Spanish-language ones went first.

"They were going even before we got the table set up," said Darlene Peterson.

Her husband Neil smiled knowingly.

"We believe the word of God is powerful and sharper than a two-edged sword," he said.

Up against a fence, a guitar Mass was in session led by Monsignor Gerry Lopez of the San Bernardino County Catholic Diocese. They hold the Masses twice a day and attract large crowds.

"We need to reassure people of God's place in this tragedy. We tell them we will walk with them through this," Lopez said. "I think the human spirit desires to rise above adversity."

Many evacuees were Spanish-speaking immigrants.

One Guatemalan builder, Edin Orlando, 30, sat alone on a cot coloring in a child's coloring book.

"It's not so bad," he said, looking slightly embarrassed at being spotted coloring. "I don't know if my home is safe. I don't know when I can know."

Francisco Aquino of Crestline was so bored he was dangling a key in front of his entranced 8-month-old son.

"What do we do?" he asked. "We sit on the cot all day. That's all there is to do."

But there was plenty of activity all day. Representatives from insurance companies, county government, FEMA, law and fire officials were all present to help whoever needed information. The Red Cross ran the overall operation.

"We are fulfilling everyone's basic needs here," said Jessica Willingham, with the executive office of the Red Cross. "Part of the challenge here is the situation is so fluid. You don't know how long it will go on and how many people will be here."

Fire officials said Thursday that people would be here at least through the weekend and possibly longer. Downed power lines, gas leaks and water problems have made it far more complicated to return to the mountains, said San Bernardino County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger.

"This is not Rancho Bernardo, a new housing tract," he said. "These are homes in the middle of the forest."

A list of homes that were lost is expected to be released Friday.

"I think my home is all right but I'm not sure," said Kristina Mayes of Running Springs. "These evacuations have become like a way of life but I love the mountains. I have a passion for the mountains."

Later in the day, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stopped by, creating a mob scene. Hundreds of children raced to get autographs while their parents photographed madly with cellphones.

"That's right, he was the Terminator," one mother told her wide-eyed son.

The governor was accompanied by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands and insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, who told evacuees he would do whatever was needed to make sure insurance companies paid claims promptly.

"I will make sure they follow through on their commitments," he said. "Sometimes they need a little shove."

Schwarzenegger stopped to ask people how they were handling the situation and if they were being treated well. Later he told an audience that California would be a model for the rest of the nation in the way it came together and handled this disaster.

"This is the sprint, but remember this is a marathon and the hardest work is yet to come," he said. "Follow-through is the most important thing. We need to help people rebuild their lives."

-- David Kelly

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